A New Birth of Freedom: Reconstruction During the Civil War

Biographical Sidebar: Laura M. Towne

Laura Towne

Laura M. Towne (1825-1901), who devoted nearly forty years to educating the freedpeople, epitomized the spirit of New England reform after the Civil War.

Born to a prosperous Pittsburgh family, Towne grew up in Boston and Philadelphia. As a young woman, she became an abolitionist.

In April 1862, under the auspices of the Port Royal Relief Committee of Philadelphia, Towne set out for the South Carolina Sea Islands, where nearly 10,000 slaves were now within Union lines.

Like others involved in the Port Royal Experiment, she hoped to make the islands a showcase for freedom by demonstrating blacks' capacity for education and productive free labor. Towne shared the paternalistic attitudes toward blacks typical of the time, but she genuinely wanted to assist in the transition from slavery to freedom.

In September 1862, Towne and her friend Ellen Murray established Penn School on St. Helena Island. The school offered a traditional New England curriculum of arithmetic, reading and writing, geography, and classical languages.
Penn School, St. Helena Island, South Carolina
After 1870, it also trained black teachers. For several decades, it was the Sea Islands' only secondary school for blacks.

Towne, who never married, volunteered her services and supported the school with contributions from Northern supporters.

While many Northerners returned home after the end of Reconstruction, Towne remained, operating the Penn School until her death. It continued in operation until the 1960s, and survives today as a community center.

For more information about the school, see the Penn Center website.

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Copyright 2003
The Meaning of Freedom: Black and White Responses to Slavery From Free Labor to Slave Labor Rights and Power: The Politics of Reconstruction Introduction The Ending of Reconstruction Epilogue: The Unfinished Revolution Additional Resources Credits for This Exhibit