ST. HELENA ISLAND, SC — The St. Helena Island landmark for African-American history and culture has a new executive director.
The Penn Center's board of directors has named Michael Campi, 53, of Conway to the post, noting his 30 years of experience with nonprofit organizations.
Campi tells The Beaufort Gazette he's the center's first white director in about 50 years. He replaces Walter Mack, who retired last year after 26 years with the center, the last four as executive director.
The center was founded in 1862 as a school for freed slaves.
It was later a Jim Crow-era industrial school and a retreat center for leaders of the civil rights movement. In 1974, the 50-acre campus was designated a National Historic Landmark. Now celebrating its sesquicentennial, the center works to tell the story the African-American sea island culture and to protect that heritage.
Campi, who started the job June 17, said he's visited but never lived on the sea islands. He told the newspaper he's spent the last five weeks tackling a “very large learning curve.”
That includes transitioning from his most recent job with the Willowglen Academy, a psychiatric residential treatment facility in Kingstree, to an organization that emphasizes history and community building. Considering his background, he is considering adding programming for special needs children and adults.
“This will not be without its challenges,” he said. “I don't think I need to learn Gullah to be accepted by the community but I do need to be culturally sensitive. …. I think it's more about outcomes than the color of one's skin, and I intend to give Penn Center the outcomes we need.”
Campi said Mack, who has returned to the center as director of land programs, has been a mentor and introduced Campi around the community.
The Penn Center was one of the nation's first schools for freed blacks. Founded in 1862 after Union troops captured the area early in the Civil War – about six months before the Emancipation Proclamation – it was named for Quaker activist William Penn by two missionaries from Pennsylvania who came south.
Then, just after the turn of the 20th century, it became the Penn Normal, Agricultural and Industrial School with an industrial arts curriculum.
Later, when public schools began educating blacks and whites, the industrial school was phased out and the Penn Center became a retreat for leaders of the Civil Rights movement, most notably the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
The center, located a few miles from Beaufort, has 19 buildings including a museum. It is the only national historic landmark district owned and operated by a minority, center officials said.
Campi, who has two grown daughters and 7-year-old twins, is temporarily staying in the Retreat House on campus, which was built for King but completed after his death.
“I feel like I'm the torch bearer and it's been passed to me,” he said of the symbolism beyond his lodging and mission.