The Penn School of St. Helena: Breaking the shackles of illiteracy on the Sea Islands of South Carolina, 1862 to 1922

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Reading and Language Arts


Joan Burstyn


Penn School, Illiteracy, Sea Islands, South Carolina, St. Helena Island

Subject Categories

Education | History | Reading and Language


A study of literacy development at the Penn School of St. Helena Island, South Carolina from 1862 to 1922 represents one of the most interesting studies in the history of Black education. Because of the commitment on the part of the Penn School teachers and the thirst for knowledge on the part of the Sea Island Blacks, the school was able to play a vital role in the development of literacy on the island.

The teachers at the school defined literacy as the ability to function as citizens in the American mainstream, and citizenship had three components: the learning of basic skills in reading, writing, and arithmetic; the development of character; and the development of a life skill.

The school's founder and first principal, Laura Towne, developed a curriculum that included reading, writing, arithmetic, Latin, history, physiology, and geography. Later, Towne added carpentry, nursing, sewing, and printing to the curriculum, which were used primarily to help students develop life skills.

After Towne's death in 1901, her assistant, Ellen Murray became principal of the school and continued in the academic tradition of her predecessor. After Murray retired in 1904, Rossa Cooley of Hampton Institute was hired as principal of the school and developed a curriculum that focused on industrial training. Some of the courses included laundry work, cobbling, first aid, social hygiene, midwifery, and basketry. By 1922, Cooley had developed a community-based program that was designed to address the health and environmental needs of the St. Helena community.

Although the aim of the teachers was to prepare Blacks at the school to function as citizens in the American mainstream, Towne, through her academic program, sought to prepare Blacks for professional and leadership positions, whereas Cooley, through her industrial program patterned after that of Hampton Institute, sought to prepare Blacks for second class citizenship.


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