Having been raised at the First Unitarian Church, Laura Matilda Towne (May 3, 1825 – February 22, 1901) was influenced by the abolitionist sermons of William Furness. Before the start of the Civil War she traveled to St. Helena Island, South Carolina as part of the Port Royal Experiment to help former slaves. Towne befriended Ellen Murray (left) and together they established the Penn Center in 1862, the first school for freed slaves in the United States. It began with nine students and operated out of the back room of a plantation house. Towne and Murray spent the next forty years ministering to the freed slaves: developing their trust, providing them with medical care, teaching them to read and write, and fighting for their land rights. Towne and Murray eventually adopted several African American children and raised them as their own.
The Penn Center trained generations of students, including five-term U.S. Congressman Robert Smalls (1839-1915) (below). During the Civil Rights era the Penn Center served as a training ground for non-violent civil disobedience by welcoming Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Now a National Historic Landmark, the Penn Center celebrates 150 years of education, leadership and service.
Laura Towne died of influenza at the age of 75. Several hundred of her sea island neighbors followed the simple mule cart that carried her body to the Port Royal ferry, singing her favorite spirituals. In addition to a memorial marker in her honor at the Brick Baptist Church cemetery in South Carolina’s Sea Island, her body was buried at the Laurel Hill Cemetery in Philadelphia. The legacy of Laura Towne continues to inspire activists within our congregation.
Photos Left to right: Oval portraits of Laura M. Towne and Ellen Murray; below Towne with three students Dick, Maria, Amoretta; Congressman Smalls; the Penn Center; below, a photo of the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Joan Baez, Ira Sandpearl and Dr. King at the Penn Center in 1966 (Photo: Bob Fitch); bottom right, students of Penn Center engaged in a lesson about Abraham Lincoln; and top right, child slaves.