By Luana M. Graves Sellars

In 1861, the Union Army liberated the Sea Islands off the coast of South Carolina as well as their main harbor, Port Royal. At the sound of the gunboats, white Confederate soldiers, plantation owners, and residents fled Hilton Head and the lowcountry at the height of the invasion, leaving behind everything — including 10,000 black slaves.

The Experiment

In the midst of this major military triumph, the government was suddenly faced with a major challenge because it did not just liberate the land, it liberated 10,000 human beings whose lives now hung in the balance because the world as they knew it was changed forever.  Decisions had to be made to address the needs of these newly freed slaves.

Groups and individuals from the North were anxious to come to South Carolina to help avert a humanitarian crisis. In general, the idea was to develop a comprehensive program to help former slaves work the land abandoned by white plantation owners while providing them an education that prepared them for their new status as freed men and women.

The report submitted to Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase showed that 200 plantations on the Sea Islands had been identified and abandoned. This included 65 on the island of Port Royal, 50 on St. Helena, 16 on Hilton Head, and 5 on Daufuskie. 10,000 slaves had been left behind with no resources and no direction.

Frederick Law Olmsted, the executive secretary of the United States Sanitary Commission, stated in the federal Bill which proposed the Port Royal Experiment, that in regard to newly freed slaves, it was necessary for the U. S. to “train or educate them in a few simple, essential and fundamental social duties of free men in civilized life.”


Union General Thomas Sherman sought out northern teachers from the New England Freedmen’s Aid Society who were willing to journey South and help to provide life skills and religious studies for the newly freed men and women. For northern religious groups, the south became a ripe field for field for missionary work.  The call to action motivated the public to raise funds to support the hiring of thirty-eight teachers. Eventually, the Freedman’s Aid Society sent fifty-four teachers: nine men and forty-five women, who earned $20 to $30 a month teaching the freedmen and women as well as the Colored Troops. 

On February 6, 1862, General Thomas Sherman initiated General Order No. 9, which outlined a plan for the abandoned plantations and opened the door for Northern societies to send volunteers and workers South to aid the freedmen. Once the Union Army occupied the island, the Port Royal Experiment began. This was a massive humanitarian effort to address the needs of the 10,000 newly freed men, women and children. Although the military was in charge, with help from Northern charity organizations, skilled workers came to the South to help the former slaves become self-sufficient.  The Port Royal Experiment was a program in which former slaves lived and successfully farmed the land abandoned by their former plantation owners. Their success is impressive because they represented a fusion of various African languages and cultures that were collectively known as Gullah, or Geechee.

The Port Royal Experiment, was the catalyst, for what eventually, became two pivotal initiatives that paved the way for Reconstruction. The first initiative, under the direction of General Ormbsy Mitchel, led to the creation of Hilton Head’s Mitchelville, the first self-governed town for freedmen in America. The second, was the formation by Bostonians Ellen Murray and Laura Towne, of an educational mission on St. Helena Island named the Penn School. Understanding the importance of education as a major component to becoming self-sufficient, The Penn School, which was named after William Penn, was the first school for the ex-slaves of the Sea Islands. The first class began with only nine students in the Oaks Plantation House. Eventually the growing enrollment forced the school to move to the Brick Church.

What is now known as Penn Center began as a school, but through the years, became a community center, continuing its role as an important resource for the Gullah community by providing training for midwives, a health care clinic, and the state’s first day care center for Black children.

The Penn Center Museum
Photo Credit: LMGS

Penn Center is also one of America’s most influential places in the fight for civil rights. At a time when there were only a few safe havens where Black leaders could gather, Penn Center was a frequently visited by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and other influential civil rights activists. MLK spent a significant amount of time at Penn Center, relaxing on the peaceful campus grounds as well as meeting and strategizing with his lieutenants.  Penn Center also served as a retreat center for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and other organizations. Designated a National Historic Monument in 1974, Penn Center was significant in developing Black American culture. Today it continues to play an important role in promoting and preserving Black history and culture through education and community outreach. 

In addition to the Port Royal experiment, under the direction of the government sponsored, Freedman’s Bureau, (also known as the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands) there were other initiatives meant to assist the freedmen. However, after 1868, the Freedmen’s Bureau was completely dismantled. History shows that most of the programs that that had been created to benefit the former slaves, died along with President Abraham Lincoln in April, 1865. A great number of freedmen who invested their hard earned money in the Freedman’s Bank, lost everything that they had upon its collapse.

As the Civil War was coming to a close, the support for the Port Royal Experiment began to diminish. Changing politics regarding race, the difficulty of raising money, and growing concerns over land distribution to the freedmen at the expense of the former owners, led President Andrew Johnson to end the program. He also ordered that the lands previously owned by plantation owners be returned to them. This closed many opportunities for freed men and women to become independent and self-sufficient.

The Port Royal Experiment was successful, but short-lived. We can only speculate on how its continuance could have impacted Reconstruction and shaped the future direction of the South and the U. S.

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