Laura M. Towne was a primetime educator
Penn School students, (1862)
On this date in 1825, Laura Matilda Towne was born. She was a White American educator and abolitionist.
From Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Towne studied homeopathic medicine privately and attended the Penn Medical University. She taught in charity schools in various northern towns and cities in the 1850s and '60s. Early in 1862 she answered an appeal for volunteers to teach, nurse, and otherwise help former slaves who had been freed in the Union capture of Port Royal and other Sea Islands area of South Carolina. In April of that year she arrived at St. Helena Island, SC.
Soon Towne was teaching school, practicing medicine, and helping to direct the distribution of clothing and other goods in the areas Blacks. In September 1862 Towne established the Penn School, one of the earliest freedman's schools. Through her, Penn had a detailed curriculum patterned on the (then) tradition of New England system. By 1867 she had devoted herself entirely to the school, which remained for decades the only secondary school available to the Black population of the Sea Islands. From 1870 teacher-training courses were also offered.
The school was supported for a time, and only in part, by the Pennsylvania Freedmen's Relief Association, later by the Benezet Society of Germantown, Pennsylvania, and later still by various members of Towne's family. Towne herself lived on her modest inheritance and worked for free. She also served the Sea Islanders as an informal adviser in legal issues, public health, and temperance. She conducted the school until her death at Frogmore, her restored plantation on St. Helena Island, on February 22, 1901. The school was renamed the Penn Normal, Industrial, and Agricultural School a short time later.
The name emphasized the label and vocational training Towne had always resisted. In 1948 Penn became part of the South Carolina public school system.
African Americans and South Carolina:
History, Politics and Culture
University of South Carolina-Aiken
Towne, Laura Matilda
Today in American History