Carrie Greene grew up hating her middle name.
When she begged her mother to explain the awful name of Murray, she discovered her family’s quiet role in American history.
She was named for Ellen Murray, her great-great-grandmother’s sister.
And last month, she drove from Florida to St. Helena Island to touch Ellen Murray in an unusual way.
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Ellen Murray stepped into history on St. Helena in 1862. She came to join her friend Laura Towne in a disease-infested war zone to prove to the world that freed slaves could learn and become self-sufficient citizens.
Together, they founded the Penn School, which for 88 years was a beacon of hope for African Americans in the Lowcountry. But Murray and Towne should never have been here. They came as young women – well-educated, well-traveled and primed for a life of finery up North, where their families were civic and business leaders.
Murray and Towne never left, devoting more than 40 years to the education of freedmen, their children and grandchildren.
Carrie Greene recently arrived at the same place it all started for Ellen Murray – the Oaks Plantation on St. Helena. She and two friends made a road trip up from Florida, pulling a U-Haul trailer.
Greene returned to the Oaks a settee and matching his-and-her chairs that were there when Ellen Murray arrived. They were in the white home with red roof still standing tall over the waters of Chowan Creek. It was built around 1855 by planters John Jeremiah Theus Pope and Mary Frampton Townsend Pope.
But after Union troops took over Beaufort County in late 1861, the Oaks became governmental headquarters for Edward L. Pierce and the great Port Royal Experiment into a confusing new world of freedom in the South.
Teachers came by the score. Ellen Murray taught her first class to nine African-American adults at the Oaks in June 1862.
Her sister Harriot would join her for a while, and so did their mother. Harriot married a Massachusetts man who was superintendent of a neighboring plantation during the war. Illness sent them back North, and with them went the velvet-covered sofa and chairs. Greene doesn’t know how they ended up with it, but the furniture remained special items in a family that clings to its history.
Greene said the furniture was passed down to Harriot’s son, Uncle Pak, and then to his daughter, Cousin Trudy. Greene spent a lot of time tracing genealogy and so did Trudy. Not long before she died, Trudy called Greene to her mobile home in Florida and passed the Oaks furniture to her.
That was around 1990, about the time Barbara “Cookie” Goodwin of Beaufort’s Aimar family bought the Oaks.
“I’m at that stage of life that I’ve got so many family treasures that need an appropriate home,” Greene said.
She’s worried her two sons don’t care about history, and she’s working hard to pass family stories to her nieces. Greene called Penn Center, the successor to Penn School, about the furniture and someone there put her in touch with Goodwin.
The furniture came home last month, and Greene spent the night at the Oaks. She’s convinced the furniture is where it belongs, in its original home now on the National Register of Historic Places.
Two girlfriends joined her for the trip to St. Helena. She had them read books, such as Laura Towne’s letters and diary, to prepare for the unusual adventure.
After a Lowcountry dinner with Goodwin and the Oaks caretakers Sandy and Carolyn Sanders, the visitors talked about stepping into a slice of American history they were never taught in school.
“My mother always told me Ellen Murray was special because she was a very strong woman,” Greene said. “My mother always told us about strong women in our family, and just to be independent.”
For Goodwin, the Oaks now doubles as a wedding and event venue. She points out the acorns carved into the furniture and wonders if it stands for the Oaks. They all want to hear the stories of social and political history the furniture could tell.
It makes them marvel at the lives of Laura Towne and Ellen Murray. They insisted on teaching a classical curriculum with Latin and the Bible, rather than the industrial trades. They promoted a temperance league, but felt education was the bedrock of freedom.
Goodwin said America could still learn lessons from the teacher Ellen Murray.
“It is important when we see all the turmoil going on now,” she said. “It seems like white vs. black and black vs. white, and then you look at what these women did. It was ‘Let me help. Let me educate.’ Where is that component now?”