The 'Big Gun Shoot' and Penn Center. Now You Know!
Updated: May 22, 2020
It strikes me as profoundly bizarre that in 2020, we are still unearthing major elements of African American history. I don’t mean simply elevating obscure stories. I mean uncovering entirely new events and people that had a consequential impact on our country.
I’ve come to appreciate the old African adage that “until the lion gets its own historian, the history of the hunt will always favor the hunter.” That speaks to the role that power plays in determining what is considered history and what isn’t. It infers that history, really, is the curated and nostalgic stories that those in power choose to tell about themselves - spun to be presented to future generations in the most favorable light for them.
One story that desperately deserves to break through the veil of historical anonymity is what happened on November 7, 1861 in the Lowcountry of South Carolina. Let me explain.
In the last few decades, Juneteenth has become increasingly known. It celebrates the day that the last enslaved African Americans learned of their emancipation. On June 19, 1865, finally, all African Americans were free from centuries long chattel slavery.
If Juneteenth was the last day, do you know what the very first day that African Americans - in large numbers - experienced freedom? You guessed it: November 7, 1861. On that day, during one of the first major naval operations of the Civil War, U.S. forces captured the Port Royal Sound area of Confederate South Carolina. As a result, all of the whites in the area fled, leaving the vast majority of enslaved Africans behind. Those people were not legally free - they were considered ‘contrabands of war’ - but they were, effectively, free.
The Battle of Port Royal is still known by many of the Gullah descendants of those who were liberated then by the name that their ancestors called it: the Big Gun Shoot.
So, if Juneteenth was the last day, the Big Gun Shoot was the first. If Juneteenth is an important date to remember and celebrate, then the Big Gun Shoot is at least as important. Since the day that the first enslaved Africans arrived in America with the Spanish in the 1500’s, this was the very first day that enslaved Africans, en masse, experienced life outside the bonds of slavery in this country. It is an extraordinarily important day in American History, certainly worthy of study and celebration.
An extremely important institution that was created in the aftermath of the Big Gun Shoot, was Penn School in St. Helena, SC. Here’s the backstory.
It was illegal to teach an enslaved person to read or write. Obviously, schools for the enslaved did not exist. After emancipation, there were two overwhelmingly pressing objectives that newly freed people had: one was a desperate quest to find lost loved ones; family who had been sold away in slavery. The second was to very quickly figure out how to put food on the table. Remember, for formerly enslaved people, there were no government programs of federal assistance, training, career counseling, or job placement. (LOL) There was no GI Bill waiting for them. One day they were enslaved. The next, they were on their own. Survival was up to them; and many did not.
So, in 1862, mere months after the Big Gun Shoot, and still 1,000 days or so before the end of the Civil War, Penn School was founded as the very first school in the Confederate south for formerly enslaved people. Penn School taught these newly freed Americans literacy. It taught them professional trades and generally prepared them for life in Reconstruction America.
Penn School has evolved over the generations to become an invaluable source of history and culture, as well as an important presence in the community. Moreover, Penn Center (as it is now known) was a critically important place in the civil rights movement. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights leadership frequently met and worked there. In fact, King’s ‘I have A Dream’ speech was penned at Penn Center.
My great grandmother Elizabeth Smalls Bampfield was among the very first students at Penn School in the early 1860’s. As an adult, she went back to work there. I grew up hearing my grandmother talk affectionately about Penn School. In recent years, I have learned to deeply appreciate its historical and cultural importance - again, as the very first school for formerly enslaved people, as an invaluable site for the Civil Rights movement, as perhaps the most compelling center for the preservation and celebration of Gullah Geechee culture, and as a longstanding source of support, services, and programming for the local community.
One of the most revered African American studies historians, Dr. John Hope Franklin, called Penn Center “the most historic site of African American history in the country.” If you understand that African Americans are, in fact, Americans - and if you understand the profound contributions that African Americans have made to this nation - then you also realize that Penn Center is one of the most important sites of American history.
If you live on St. Helena island, or in Beaufort or Port Royal, then, likely, you've known about this. Anywhere else, odds are that you haven't.
The Big Gun Shoot and Penn Center!
And now you know!