Courtney Siceloff was not always welcomed around here when he pushed for racial justice in the 1950s and ’60s.
But this week, a welcome center will be named for him.
Penn Center on St. Helena Island will honor Siceloff at 5 p.m. Friday with a dedication ceremony and reception at its Courtney P. Siceloff Welcome Center.
Siceloff, who died in January at 92, was executive director of the Penn Center from 1950 to 1969. He helped forge a new direction for a place that opened in 1862 as one of the first schools in the South for freedmen, and remained at the forefront of African-American education until 1948.
In Siceloff’s era, Penn became an important place in the nation’s civil rights movement.
Like Siceloff, the campus was quiet and unassuming, but dedicated to a cause. The cause was the same one pushed by Penn’s namesake William Penn: “The brotherhood of all humanity.”
For that, Siceloff and his wife, Elizabeth, and children John and Mary were called communists.
Still, the Siceloffs ran a place that welcomed whites and blacks at the same table, in the same room, when even being seen together could cost one a livelihood.
It was a place that welcomed major civil rights organizations, including the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (called “Snick”).
It welcomed the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and his lieutenants on a number of occasions for planning sessions, undisturbed by the outside world. But even the peaceful singing of Joan Baez and St. Helena’s finest gospel voices could not quell the struggle within the movement over whether to remain nonviolent.
Taylor Branch writes in “At Canaan’s Edge” that King told his staff here: “Violence may murder the liar, but it doesn’t murder the lie. Violence may go to the point of murdering the hater, but it doesn’t murder hate.”
The Siceloff home welcomed strangers for meetings and crisis sessions because civil rights leaders were never off the clock.
The Siceloffs were Quakers who welcomed the Peace Corps as the old Penn school buildings were converted to conference facilities. Siceloff welcomed the preservation of Penn’s collection of artifacts and historical manuscripts that are so important to America’s story.
Siceloff may be best known for welcoming the giants, like King. But he should be better known for welcoming the foot soldiers.
“The Southern Christian Leadership Conference had this sort of ‘Upstairs, Downstairs’ strategy where they had these large, very well-coordinated places where they chose to support a particular action and stay with it,” Penn board member John Siceloff told me when his father passed away.
“But Dad and the work at Penn was an example of the bottom-up work that went on in places across the South. He — and I would say Penn as a team and the blacks who were part of that in the ’50s and ’60s — believed that true change came from the bottom up.”
In Courtney Siceloff’s view, everyone mattered. And that remains a welcome concept.