The story in games

The role of sport in one of the South’s most historic African-American sites


By Will Martin

In a region already saturated by a sense of its own history, the Penn Center manages to emanate a distinctive character, betraying an important past. The historical high points have been well-chronicled.

Martin Luther King Jr. planned his “I have a Dream” speech within the Penn School’s walls. The national wound that was the Civil War began off the coast of Charleston, but the healing, the Reconstruction, much of it began right here. More specifically, it was here, on St. Helena Island, that the “experiment” that was the education of the newly freed slaves was first conducted. Indeed, important things happened here.

Increasingly, however, historians have grown weary of the “important”. Unsatisfied with timelines and wars, they want to know how the common person lived — what foods they ate, the families they kept, the games they played. Yes, even the games.

One emerging academic field is the history of sport, the study of how the games we’ve played have impacted us socially and reflected who we are as a people. Penn Center is no exception to the story-telling power of sports, as even a modest survey is instructive enough, telling us that Penn School was centered on productivity, an integral part of a historical community, and, above all, a birthplace of hope.


When Robert Ralph Middleton was drafted by the Army Air Force in the 1945, the rigors of military life carried less shock for the Penn School student than for most military inductees. The institution’s emphasis on structure and self-discipline served him well once in uniform.

“It was a routine that really helped when I entered the service,” said Middleton, now 80 years old. “(At Penn) you’d get up at 5:30.”

Early mornings turned into long days at Penn School, where chores preceded classes, and the line between vocational training and class work was often blurred.

“Everybody had a duty to do. I don’t care who you were,” said Ercell Holmes, a 1947 Penn School graduate, who recalls wealthier students coming from as far away as Brooklyn, N.Y. “You could have a lot of money, but you still had to work.”

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Such were the demands on the students of a school that, while reliant on the outside benefactors, was largely self-sufficient. Meat, milk, sugar, all were home-grown at Penn, and amid such productivity, recreation was a welcome diversion, not a focus.

But play they did, when they could, if they could. Sometimes a war or gas shortage might interfere, but over the years Penn students fielded competitors in many of the prominent sports their neighboring schools enjoyed.

“Here, we played volleyball, a lot of basketball, and track,” said Holmes, herself a basketball player. “I remember we played Mather School … schools used to come from Charleston.”

Plantation living on St. Helena Island also provided a network for a baseball league which reflected the relationship between Penn and the surrounding community.

“They would play all over the island,” said Middleton. “The competition was good. …People still talk about this team, that team.”

“When I was a little girl, we went to baseball on Saturdays,” added Holmes, who later watched her sons play on plantation teams, which were ultimately integrated into the current PALS recreation league. “A lot of students from Hilton Head came over to play.”

The most uniquely American of sports, football, complete with accompanying band, also found its way to Penn School, though the cost and risk of injuries shortened its stay. In the end, the more practical concerns weighed heaviest at Penn.


While sports at Penn School appear subservient to work to the modern eye, one familiar with the Gullah culture might consider it more accurate to say that recreation was born out of vocation for those on the Sea Islands.

“These things were related directly to the environment,” said James Gardner, director of recreation at University of South Carolina-Beaufort and student of West African influences on the area’s earliest cultures.

Just as in ancient Egypt, where competitions such as the hammer throw emerged from labor, said Gardner, so in the slave culture of St. Helena Island, rhythmic tasks such as husking rice and shelling corn could have provided a competitive foundation for the emergence of games. Plantation journals from across the nation record that slaves not only tended to their masters’ horses, but often served as jockeys in regional races.

In a more distant illustration of the merger between sport and necessity, the passion for dance and the need for discretion among Brazilian slaves led to the creation of capoeira, a martial art disguised from slave owners as recreation and mere ritual. Locally, the arrival of Union troops in the 1860s would have introduced not only emancipation, but also more definitive sports from the Northern states, which locals would have combined with indigenous rituals and games.

“They certainly picked up sports from them,” said Gardner. “Boxing, for example, became a very popular game at that time.”

As Middleton and Holmes tell it, Penn School in the 20th century also had its share of home-spun ingenuity, whether it be using stones to play a makeshift game of jacks, or taking part in the “greasy pole.”

“On Labor Day, and on the Fourth of July, we had the greasy pole,” Middleton said, detailing how Penn students would place a long, slender pine tree in a pit, lather it in shortening, and at the top attach a dollar, the prize for whomever could manage the climb.

“You could get some grip, but not enough grip,” laughed Middleton. “We used all types of ingenuity, and I can remember Collins Middleton would put sand in his pockets to use to climb the pole.”


Gardner said games and play, even in work-dominated cultures such as the St. Helena slave plantations and the Penn School, have always been present, even important, often evolving “into a bigger, national playing field.

“National successes also had a way of returning the hope that inspired them. Middleton and Holmes recall prominent black athletes such as Olympic gold medalist sprinter Jesse Owens and heavyweight champion boxer Joe Louis as causes for celebration at Penn School and the surrounding community.

“It was a big deal,” Middleton said of the reaction to the St. Helena community to Louis’ bouts.

Because electricity was virtually non-existent outside the Penn School, Middleton remembers a local doctor’s home offered a rare battery-powered radio to pick up fight commentary, which because of Louis’ tendency to knock his opponent out quickly, was often brief.

“They would walk from home, which would be six or seven miles away,” said Middleton. “They would walk in the door, and they would say, ‘The fight was over.'”

“Joe Louis was the great fighter,” added Holmes, recalling how celebration over the champion’s success portrayed the sense of community to which the Penn School had become central.

“You need more schools like the way Penn was … It gave you a start.”

While few students carried dreams of becoming the next Louis, the Penn School instilled a confidence and work ethic that offered hope for accomplishment.

“You need more schools like the way Penn was,” said Middleton. “It gave you a start.”

The same Middleton, who as a Penn student would sneak in after-hours homework time under the bathroom lighting, got his “start” in Washington, D.C., as a federal employee. Now long retired, he still rises at 5:30 a.m. to tend to his yard and home, where he raises indigo for its instructional value to Penn Center and the surrounding community.

Holmes, got her own “start” at Beaufort Memorial Hospital, from where she retired as a nurse’s assistant. She still exercises often, and offers sage advice on avoiding fast food and the merits of giving thanks to God for possessing a “sound mind”.

Both confess to harboring a love of sports, which while instilled at Penn, became a family tradition for Holmes.

“I learned football because I raised four boys,” Holmes said, “and to the day, I have a son living in Decatur, Ga., and I watch the game with him. We do it over the phone.”

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