This week we will celebrate the 187th birthday of Laura Matilda Town, who just happens to be the main character in my next book, The Road to Frogmore. Laura was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on May 3, 1825, the middle child in a large family; she had a brother and two sisters who were older than she was, and a brother and two sisters who were younger. Her mother died when Laura was nine--a tragedy that left its mark on all of her children, and particularly on Laura. As she admits at one point in the book, she always felt responsible for her mother's death. Maybe, if she had just been a better child, she thought, her mother wouldn't have tried to give birth to a new baby.
Laura grew up to be an unconventional woman. She was a Unitarian in an era of evangelical fervor. She studied to be a doctor, when women doctors were still a rarity. She refused to marry, in an age when every woman was expected to become a dutiful wife. Instead, she set up her own household with her lifelong companion, Miss Ellen Murray. But nothing she did was more outrageous than her decision to travel to South Carolina in the middle of the Civil War so that she could bring medical care and education to the slaves who were just learning that they were going to be free.
Her efforts on behalf of the people she came to know on St. Helena Island did not stop when the war was over. She felt responsible for all the evils of slavery, which was not surprising, given her character, and she refused to abandon the people she had come to love. Instead, she and Ellen bought a former plantation right there on the island, and built a school financed entirely from Laura's own inheritance. The two women adopted several black children and raised them as their own. They continued to teach for the rest of their lives. They provided an education that was the equivalent to (or perhaps better than) the state-provided education of white children. Laura died on St. Helena Island in 1901, and Ellen followed her in 1908.
Their school, however, outlived them. Known first as The Penn School, so named in honor of the Freedmen's Aid Society of Pennsylvania, it has evolved today into The Penn Center, whose purpose is the preservation of the Gullah language and heritage of the people of St. Helena Island. This year, you will note, is the 150th anniversary of the founding of the Penn School, and the Penn Center will be honoring Miss Towne and her amazing contributions to the welfare of the people she helped to transform from slaves into citizens. So happy birthday, Laura. We're still trying to live up to your ideals.