A quiet revolutionary: Laura Matilda Towne devoted her life to a school for former slaves

Laura Towne marker
Laura Towne marker, Penn Center, St. Helena’s Island, SC

The Rev. William Furness’s sermons on the abominations of slavery angered wealthy members of First Unitarian Church in Philadelphia in the decade leading up to the American Civil War. Many withdrew from the church. Laura Matilda Towne (1825–1901) was among those who stayed to hear Furness preach, often with armed guards at his side, and his words left a lasting impression on her.

When shots were fired at Fort Sumter in 1861, the 35-year-old Towne decided she must act. With medical training from the Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania and a love of teaching, she responded to Abraham Lincoln’s call for teachers to go to South Carolina to participate in the Port Royal Experiment. The Union Navy had captured Port Royal Sound, just off the coast of Beaufort and Hilton Head Islands, so quickly that the plantation owners there deserted not only their plantations but also thousands of people they had previously enslaved. The United States government declared these people (and other slaves who turned themselves over to Union troops) not freed but contraband of war. It set up the Port Royal Experiment to prove that if the former slaves could be educated, become landowners, serve in the military, and build a self-sufficient community, they could become productive citizens in other parts of the South.

This set the stage for Towne’s life work.

In 1862, Towne boarded a ship for St. Helena Island, South Carolina. There she found 6,000 people who had known no other life but one of bondage. In addition to putting her skills as a homeopathic physician to use, Towne began a school, first in her home and eventually in a building she had shipped in pieces from Philadelphia. She named it the Penn School, in honor of William Penn and Pennsylvania’s Freedmen’s Aid Society, which funded the school’s first years. Later, her family, other prominent Unitarians, and abolitionists of other faiths supported the school.

Within months of Towne’s arrival, Ellen Murray — described as Towne’s lifelong intimate friend — came to work at her side. Together they built the school into the center of community life on the Sea Islands. Towne became a bridge between the government and the people of the islands, often as an advocate for their needs and wages. She opposed speculators’ attempts to buy lands that had become delinquent through nonpayment of taxes, eventually making it possible for people to own the land they had worked on all their lives.

When Towne died of influenza in 1901, at the age of 75, several hundred of her island neighbors followed the simple mule cart that carried her body to the Port Royal ferry, singing the spirituals she had so loved. She was buried in Philadelphia, and a memorial marker was placed in her honor at the Brick Baptist Church Cemetery on St. Helena Island. But Towne’s impact did not die when she did.

Towne was a quiet revolutionary; she broke social barriers and attacked the assigned social place of African Americans by fighting entrenched patterns of subservience. As the people of the Sea Islands developed skills and knowledge previously denied them, Towne supported their journey toward independence. Rosalyn Browne, former director of history and culture at Penn Center (the former Penn School), said, “In 1862, before freedom came, [Towne] taught my ancestors how to free their minds long before the United States Congress freed their persons.”

When the school closed in 1948, it became Penn Community Services Center, an agency promoting self-sufficiency and the advancement and development of the Sea Island community and its residents.

Penn Center played an important role in the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. It was, among many other things, a safe haven for civil rights conferences, training, and retreats led by the Rev. Dr. Martin L. King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Penn Center is now a national historic landmark district.

Within the past few years, Penn Center has reconnected with its Unitarian roots through the efforts of the late Milton Rahn and the Rev. Dr. Audrey W. Vincent, members of the UU Church of Savannah, Georgia, and the work of the UU Fellowship of Beaufort, South Carolina. The Beaufort congregation has developed such a strong multicultural partnership with Penn Center that on May 18, 2013, the fellowship will be inducted into the center’s 1862 Circle, which honors supporters and luminaries such as Congressman John Lewis, Vernon Jordan, Phylicia Rashad, and Pat Conroy.

As Penn Center celebrates its 150th anniversary, it continues to inspire through education, leadership, and service—and Towne’s legacy lives on.

First published in the Spring 2013 issue of UU World magazine.

Standing on a street corner

When I first saw Sheila, she was standing on a street corner holding up a sign to cars that were stopped for the light. It was at the intersection of Azalea and Brook Avenues in Henrico County, Virginia, a place that proudly declares itself the oldest county in the United States of America—but it could have been anywhere.

She looked to be a rather small, middle-aged women with mousey brown hair pulled back from her face in a rubber-band. The sign she was holding was a piece of white poster board, the kind students use for school projects.  She was using it to beg for money. I couldn’t read all of the words she had scrawled there but what I read kicked me in the gut: “I lost my job. I never thought this could happen to me.” Who does? Who dreams of standing all day on a dirty, dusty street corner waiting for someone to take pity on them?

Sheila was one of marginalized people who occupy the corners of this country, left out of society, and in the cases of people like Sheila, thrust into a downward spiral that is ripping a hole in this country’s deteriorating safety net, a safety net very few of our politicians are working actively to repair.

As I sat in the comfort of my brand new 2012 Subaru Forester and ate my lunch, I studied her standing there. I tried to imagine her life and what it feels like to be so desperate as to beg for money on a street corner. My imagination failed me. While I watched, no one stopped and handed her money, or food, or anything. Most didn’t even slow down to read her sign. She was indistinguishable from the telephone pole and street sign she stood in front of.

I could see the pain coursing through her body as she took one hand off the flimsy sign, covered her eyes, and pressed it to her forehead, like she was trying to keep her head from exploding. I could almost see the tears she was fighting back.

She didn’t win the fight. She left the corner, sat down on the curb in the parking lot and starting sobbing.

I left my car and went over to her. “Hi, my name is Annette. I wonder if you feel like talking. I’d be glad to buy you some lunch.”

She looked up at me and through her tears said, “I just got kicked out of my house. I lost my job a little while ago.” She put her head back her hands. “I think it’s my teeth,” she mumbled through her hands. “I’m so ugly, no one wants to hire me.”

Although I couldn’t see for certain, it looked as if she had only one tooth on the top of her mouth and it protruded from her gum at an angle that made it appear as if it would fall out at any moment.

“I can’t afford to get my teeth fixed,” she said. “and now I’ve been thrown out of my apartment by the girlfriend of a guy I invited to stay there. He gets disability so the guy who owns the house now is letting him stay there and I’ve got to come up with $500 if I want to stay. And it’s my apartment and my stuff,” the anger in her voice intensified with each word. She looked up at me again. “But I guess it’s not mine anymore.” Her anger turned to defeat.

I reiterated my offer of lunch. She didn’t respond. I dug into my wallet and pulled out a $20 and handed it to her. She took it and thanked me.

“What’s your name, again?” she asked with enough composure I could imagine her welcoming customers to Hardy’s, where she said she used to work.

“Annette. What’s yours?”

“Sheila,” she said. Then she shook her head and said, “I don’t know what I’m going to do.”

I asked her about life on the street corner. “Do many people stop to help?”

She told me how black women were the ones who helped her the most. “They seem happiest,” she said. White women her age helped the least. She figured they identified with her too much. She told me about the men who offered to pay her for prostitution. “I won’t do that. I’ve got enough problems,” she said. She smiled a little and added, “Some guy me gave me a double cheeseburger today. He gave one to me and one to his dog.” With that, she laughed a little, a laugh that only served to accentuate the poor condition of her mouth.

Dental care is one of the most obvious class dividers in our society. I’ve always been self-conscious of my teeth they are a little crooked but at least I have all of them. My mom took me to an orthodontist when I was a teenager and when she learned how much it would cost to fit me with braces, she swallowed hard and said we couldn’t afford it—and we were probably closer to middle class. No one living below the poverty level in this country can afford even the most basic dental care.

Sheila told me about her nineteen-year old son who is a student at the University of Richmond. “I can’t ask him for help,” she said. “My sister told him a bunch of lies about me. It’s all messed up.” She paused and looked down at the cracked cement in the parking lot. “That really hurts,” she said. I wonder what lies she told him. Sheila didn’t appear to be a substance abuser. She said she didn’t give in to prostitution. But whatever it was, it kept them apart. I wonder if he knows she is standing on a street corner begging for money.

She showed me how the heel of her black athletic shoe was falling off. “People gave me all my clothes,” she told me. “I just wish I wasn’t so ugly,” she said again.

“I’ve got some clothes in the back of my car you are welcome to take a look at,” I said.

She gave me wistful look. “I’d like some new clothes but I don’t have any way to carry them. All I have is that bike over there.” She pointed to a rusty, old, single speed women’s bike chained up to the light post across the street.

I asked her if she knew about the services that were available in town to help her. “I’ve used CARITAS,” she said. “They’ve helped me.”

CARITAS is an emergency homeless shelter and support service run in partnership with churches all over the city. I figured I could at least connect her to them but she already knew how to reach them.

I told her I hoped she found some help. “If I see you again I’ll stop and say hi,” I said.

She stuck her hand out and we shook, like we had just concluded a business deal.

“Thanks for talking,” I said and walked back to my car. It’s hard to help people, I thought. Maybe the money will help a little. Maybe the conversation helped her to know someone cares. But I suspect she’ll be back on some corner tomorrow. “There is no way for me to get out of this,” she told me. I hope she is wrong.

Maybe the politicians will suddenly find a heart. Maybe people will finally figure out that government austerity measures that continually cut holes in the safety net are not a pathway to recovery. But I think the reality is that people like Sheila will have to depend on the kindness of strangers on some street corner for a long time to come.

What would you have done to help Sheila? Is homelessness and poverty inevitable or do you think there are solutions that can make a real difference?

The women of Katrina

Women of Katrina book cover

I am honored to announce that excerpts from my online journal, originally published on the Unitarian Universalist Association website, www.uua.org, are included in a new publicationThe Women of Katrina book cover from Vanderbilt University Press, The Women of Katrina: How Gender, Race, and Class Matter in an American Disaster, edited by Emmanuel David and Elaine Enarson. My journal was about my experiences working as a mental health volunteer in an American Red Cross emergency shelter in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, in the days and weeks following  Hurricane Katrina. To read all of my entries, please visit “A Personal View of Disaster: The Diary of Annette Marquis

Description of The Women of Katrina: The transformative event known as “Katrina” exposed long-standing social inequalities. While debates rage about race and class relations in New Orleans and the Katrina diaspora, gender remains curiously absent from public discourse and scholarly analysis. This volume draws on original research and firsthand narratives from women in diverse economic, political, ethnic, and geographic contexts to portray pre-Katrina vulnerabilities, gender concerns in post-disaster housing and assistance, and women’s collective struggles to recover from this catastrophe.

I’d love to hear your stories of Katrina. What did you learn from work you have done post-Katrina?