Elaine Goodale Eastman
Laura Towne (1825-1901)
Laura Towne was one of the first Northern women to go south to work with freed slaves. 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, 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.
Towne, Laura (ed. Rupert Sargent Holland). Letters and Diaries of Laura M. Towne, 1912
Hoffman, Nancy. Woman's True Profession: Voices from the History of Teaching, 1981