Traveling on the Oriental in 1861, Towne arrived on St. Helena and stayed to practice homeopathy and to teach the freed slaves, forming Penn School and participating in the Port Royal Experiment with her partner Ellen Murray.
Born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on May 3, 1825, Towne later lived in Philadelphia, where she moved in socially progressive circles. She was educated as both a homeopathic physician and a teacher. She was also a dedicated abolitionist.
Towne opened the Penn School, (with Ellen Murray) the first school for freedmen, while the Civil War was raging. As a white woman living and working among former slaves, she defied convention. Unlike most of those who went south at the time, Laura Towne made a life for herself on St. Helena Island, South Carolina, and ran the Penn School until her death in 1901.
In 1861, the Sea Islands off the coast of South Carolina fell to the Union army. Faced with defeat, the entire white population fled, leaving their homes, belongings, and ten thousand slaves. Towne arrived on the Sea Islands in April 1862, one of the first Northern women to go south to work during the Civil War.
She participated in the Port Royal Experiment, the first large-scale government effort to help former slaves. The teachers who went south sought not only to teach the freedmen how to read and write, but hoped to help them develop socially and morally. They saw themselves as missionaries who would “bring the light of God’s truth” to people they assumed were in need of such enlightenment.
Laura Towne exemplified this dual role, teacher and missionary, though with few lofty affectations. She was pragmatic, down-to-earth and strong-minded — a born administrator. She readily entered into the life of Saint Helena Island, where she began her work attending to the medical needs of the freedmen.
However, in June 1862, she and Ellen Murray, her life-long friend and fellow teacher, opened the first school for freed slaves. The school had nine adult students and operated out of the back room of a plantation house. This school was to become the Penn School, which Towne and Murray would operate for the next forty years.
Eventually, Towne gave up practicing medicine in order to devote all her attentions to the business of teaching and running Penn. Unlike most of the schools for freedmen, the Penn School offered a rigorous curriculum, modeled on that of schools in New England.
Laura Towne spent forty years running the school and grew to love her life on the Sea Islands. She and Ellen Murray eventually adopted several African American children and raised them as their own. Upon her death in 1901, Towne left the Penn School to the Hampton Institute, at which time it began operating as the Penn Normal, Industrial, and Agricultural School.
It seems clear to me, in reading about Miss Towne, that the story of founding Penn School for the purpose of educating the freed slaves and their children, is interwoven with her liberal faith that called for liberty for all people.
As a homeopath, Laura began visiting among the sick, when she first came to the island, dealing with devastating epidemics like yellow fever, cholera, and dysentery, where she vaccinated, applied medications and often through the night.
Through her letter writing and diary she reveals her despair, loneliness, and exhaustion, as she was often the only hope the people had. As a teacher, she and her partner, Ellen Murray, began teaching the freed slaves which proved to bring influence in their lives, but she also became a bridge between those representing the government and those the government was to serve.
She would advise them of their rights, most notably their right to own land they had worked on all their lives. Miss Towne’s persistence made it possible for the St. Helena blacks to own 75 % of the land in Beaufort County, which distinguished them from blacks elsewhere in the South.
The Confiscation Act of June 1862 seized abandoned properties and properties that were delinquent in their war taxes. Significant portions of these impounded properties were sold to blacks on St. Helena at reasonable rates.
Laura Towne was a revolutionary who broke several social barriers while on the island. She confronted the seemingly assigned social place of the African American by breaking patterns of subservience. This enabled them a sense of independence, responsibility, and leadership. Some blacks were given the opportunity to teach with Laura and Ellen.
Miss Towne also broke the barrier of gender expectations of domesticity when she chose to live away from home and with another woman.
By way of the Port Royal Experiment many opportunities, like land ownership, for the freed slaves became available. Literacy became a reality, where no longer was it prohibited by law to learn to read and write. Penn School became the best known as “former slaves responded with enthusiasm, demonstrating a thirst for knowledge that deeply impressed their teachers.
Both young and old attended school, creating a demand that far exceeded the school’s capacity. And with the help of time, the abolitionists began to develop an appreciation for the African-American culture.
Where, initially, they had gone to the islands to uplift the freed slaves, meaning teaching Euro-American values and culture, they were soon to recognize the richness of the African-American culture. Especially through their music which was expressed often and with profound difference from what Miss Towne and her fellow missionaries were used to.
“The music’s distinction was its African-ness, it’s distinctive rhythmic structure, heavy reliance on call-and-response, and the communal nature of its compositions rooted in the musical traditions of West Africa.”
Throughout her letters and diary Towne speaks of freedom of the slaves and it’s importance on their being able to care for themselves. Herself, a Unitarian, knew well the importance of freedom, especially freedom of religion.
The belief in freedom for Laura and Ellen Murray was manifested primarily in the founding of Penn School. Teaching was their life-style from the beginning of days on St. Helena Island.
In March of 1864, the Philadelphia Commission began efforts to secure a building for the Murray-Towne school, as they had been meeting in a church. Two small school houses were shipped and after a years time to put the buildings together they selected a site for the school “in the field opposite the church.”
They named the school “Penn School”, as Miss Towne said, “for William Penn, that great lover of liberty. The school bell which had to be heard over five or six plantations, came six months later, on which Miss Towne inscribed the words, “Proclaim Liberty”.
Towne was very appreciative of American black music, despairing of her inability to write music and she attended a Shout which she records in her diary, and she also records in some detail the boat songs of that time, and she wrote down the words as others took down the music. Towne corresponded with Lucy McKim Garrison (who was able to transcribe the songs) about the music and McKim sang them to friends at gatherings in Lucretia Mott‘s house.
To Mary Channing Higginson – “.. and also Ms. Laura Towne, the homeopathic physician of the department, chief teacher and probably the most energetic person this side of civilisation: a person of splendid health and astonishing capacity…. I think she has done more for me than anyone else by prescribing homeopathic arsenic as a tonic, one powder every day on rising, and it has already, I think (3 doses) affected me.”