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Cultural Treasures Inducted Into The Penn Center 1862 Circle

It is at this time each year that the historic Penn Center celebrates its 1862 Circle Gala.  The Gala is the non-profit’s major fundraiser spearheaded by the Board of Trustees of Penn Center.  The formal affair welcomes over 500 guests to witness the induction of individuals and organizations into the prestigious 1862 Circle.

The Board of Trustees of Penn Center and Executive Director, Dr. Rodell Lawrence is pleased to announce Lipman Family Farms as the 2016 Visionary Sponsor of the 1862 Circle Gala.  Lipman Family Farms have been long committed to philanthropy and community service. Lipman’s goal is to support organizations like Penn Center that provide long-term solutions to real social issues—centered primarily on children, education and hunger relief.

First established in 2003, the 1862 Circle recognizes leaders who embody the spirit of Penn Center and who serve as national advocates for the enduring history and culture of the Sea Islands.   The name celebrates the founding of Penn School, now Penn Center, in 1862.

This year’s Gala will celebrate “Cultural Treasures: Health, Art and Service” by inducting into membership Robert “Bobby” Middleton, an author and faithful docent; Reverend Dr. Elijah Washington, a dedicated and devoted physician, and Anita Singleton-Prather, a cultural educator and entertainer.  This year’s In-Memoriam honorees are Leroy E. Browne, Sr. and Corinne J. Browne, along with Jonathan N. Francis, Sr.

Robert “Bobby” Middleton, a St. Helena Island native, attended Penn Normal, Agricultural and Industrial School and is a sixteen-year dedicated docent for the York W. Bailey Museum where he welcomes 75,000 visitors annually to Penn Center.  He is the co-author of With Open Arms: The Robert Middleton Story. Mr. Middleton enjoys providing private tours of the St. Helena Island Gullah community and guided tours of Penn Center’s 50-acre National Historic Landmark District.  He also serves as one of the caretakers of the Coffin Point Praise House, one of only four praise houses still in existence on St. Helena Island.  Mr. Robert “Bobby” Middleton is a long-time member of Penn Club, Inc., has served as Deacon of First African Baptist Church on St. Helena Island for 30-years, and is a promoter of St. Helena Island Gullah culture.

Reverend Dr. Elijah Washington, a Sheldon native, is a retired Doctor of Obstetrics and Gynecology who practiced and served the community for over 47-years within his private practice, Beaufort Memorial Hospital and Beaufort, Jasper, Hampton Comprehensive Health Services (BJHCHS), where upon his dedicated service called “The Elijah Washington Era” (1971-1983) is a direct result of BJHCHS’s most remembered history.  He is the author of Moma, I Can’t Smile (2013), Afro-Americans and Beaufort Memorial Hospital: the Upward Struggle in the Early Years (2013), and co-authored numerous publications that were released in The Journal of Medical Society of New Jersey and Obstetrics and Gynecology. Reverend Dr. Elijah Washington is presently the pastor of First African Baptist Church of St. Helena Island.

Anita Singleton-Prather, a Beaufort native, is a Gullah ambassador, actor, director, entertainer and master storyteller.  She brings Gullah culture alive through her creation of “Aunt Pearlie-Sue,” a character inspired by her beloved grandmother.  Ms. Prather is the founder of the musical performance group The Gullah Kinfolk and of ASE Gullah Education, an organization that strives to educate the world through the arts, about the rich and unique Gullah culture.  Ms. Anita Singleton-Prather has appeared and performed at many festivals, including the Penn Center Heritage Days Celebration and Spoleto Festival USA, in movies, like Forrest Gump, and films broadcast nationally on PBS and ETV, including the newly released Circle Unbroken: A Gullah Journey from Africa to America.

Leroy E. Browne, Sr. and Corinne J. Browne, of St. Helena Island, were both dedicated to Penn School—Penn Center and the community.  Corinne Jefferson Browne is a 1936 graduate of Penn School who studied at Hampton University.  She was the founder and first Director of the Penn Nursey School which she organized in 1950.  This was the only program of its kind in the Lowcountry at the time and was met with much skepticism in the community.  Mrs. Browne further proved her dedication to the community when she opened her home to children in the program to assist parents who worked late hours. During her 25-year tenure she touched the lives of over 500 children, who demonstrated their learning readiness when they enrolled in the public school system.  Corinne J. Browne was married to Leroy E. Browne, Sr. and she died in 2008.   Mr. Browne began his involvement with Penn Center as a child, graduating from the Penn School in 1934. He also graduated from Hampton Institute in 1940.  Browne worked at Penn School for 25-years as Superintendent of Buildings and Grounds.  Mr. Leroy Browne, a former Beaufort County Councilman, was South Carolina’s first African American elected official after Reconstruction.  St. Helena Island’s first health center, part of Beaufort, Jasper, Hampton Comprehensive Health Services, was named in Mr. Browne’s honor in 1980. When he retired in 1980, Browne was given the state’s highest honor, The Order of the Palmetto, presented by former Governor Richard Riley for accomplishments and contributions to the state.  Mr. Leroy E. Browne, Sr. died in 2007.

Jonathan N. Francis, Sr., a native of Clarendon County was a son of sharecroppers.  He found domestic work in his early adulthood which eventually led to earning a free college education.  Mr. Francis earned his Bachelor’s and Master’s Degrees from South Carolina State College and soon became a teacher and principal of Bluffton Colored Grade School in 1942.  It was in 1948 that he became the first public school principal of Penn School, as well as the school’s first African American principal. Mr. Francis later served as the first principal of St. Helena High School 1948—1963.  Mr. Jonathan N. Francis, Sr. died in 1963.

In keeping with its mission, Penn Center strives to promote the Gullah Geechee art forms by featuring the work of area artists.  “Songs of Zion,” a painting from the Penn School Collection, was donated and created by Gullah-Creole artist, Diane Britton-Dunham, whose paintings are well known for themes that represent her heritage and deep roots in the South Carolina Lowcountry and the Louisiana Bayous.  Penn Center is grateful to Mrs. Diane Britton-Dunham for granting permission to feature “Songs of Zion” for the 2016 Gala.

Through the years, Penn Center has inducted thirty individuals and organizations into the 1862 Circle, along with eight In-Memoriam honorees.  Some of the members include:  Emory S. Campbell, Vernon Jordan, James Denmark, the Honorable John Lewis, the Honorable James E. Clyburn, Jonathan Green, the Honorable Ernest F. “Fritz.” Hollings, Thomas C Barnwell, Jr.,  the Honorable Robert Smalls, Phylicia Rashad, Roland Gardner, Louis O. Dore, Marian Wright Edelman, Former South Carolina Governor Richard “Dick” Riley, Penn School founders and educators, Lauran Towne, Ellen Murray and  Charlotte Forten, and recently departed author and educator, Pat Conroy.

Organizations and support groups inducted into the 1862 Circle include:  The Penn Club, Inc., Sankofa Circle, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Wilson Library, Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Beaufort, Beaufort, Jasper, Hampton Comprehensive Health Services and the historic Brick Baptist Church.

The Board of Trustees of Penn Center, Inc. cordially invite you to attend the thirteenth annual 1862 Circle Gala to be held on April 30th, at the Sonesta Resort on Hilton Head Island.  Reception and silent auction will begin at 6:00 p.m.  Formal dinner and induction program is scheduled for 7:00 p.m., with music for the occasion by jazz and blues singer, Jan Spencer.  For more information on making a seat or table reservation, please contact Penn Center: (843) 838-2432, info@penncenter.com or www.penncenter.com.  The 1862 Circle Gala the major fundraiser for Penn Center, Inc., a 501(c)3 Non-Profit Organization.

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