Laura Towne: The Chalkboard Champion Who Taught Emancipated Slaves

35_towne_sm[1][1]American history is full of absolutely amazing chalkboard champions, and one excellent example is Laura Towne. This remarkable teacher was one of the first northern women to venture south in order to work with newly emancipated slaves.

Born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in1825, Laura was raised in Philadelphia, where she moved in socially progressive circles. She was educated as both a homeopathic physician and a schoolteacher. She was also a dedicated abolitionist.

While the Civil War still was raging all about her, Laura travelled to St. Helena Island in Port Royal, South Carolina, where she founded the first school for freed slaves. She named her institution the Penn School. Laura was practical, independent, down-to-earth and strong-willed. She readily entered into the life of Saint Helena Island, where she began her work attending to the medical needs of the freed slaves. In June, 1862, Laura gave up her medical practice, and together with Ellen Murray, her life-long friend and fellow teacher, opened the first school for freed slaves. Nine adults students enrolled in the school, which operated out of the back room of an abandoned plantation house. Unlike most schools established for emancipated slaves, Laura’s school offered a rigorous curriculum, which was modeled on the schools of New England.

Laura spent forty years running her school and grew to love the life she had established in Port Royal. She and Ellen eventually adopted several African American children and raised them as their own. Upon her death in 1901, Laura bequeathed the Penn School to the Hampton Institute, at which time it began operating as the Penn Normal, Industrial, and Agricultural School.