Laura M. Towne

While reading Dena Epstein’s book Sinful Tunes and Spirituals1, the various diary entries and letters stuck out to me, and I was curious to learn more about who was behind those entries, as well as find primary sources by and about the writers. In April 1862, a woman named Laura Towne described a shout she witnessed during her teaching in the Sea Islands (a chain of islands off the southeastern coast of the United States).

A quote from a letter written by Laura Towne, describing a shout she witnessed2.

One small detail really stayed with me throughout this reading, and it was that Towne was a teacher on the island. This is the information I used to guide my primary source searching. I found an article from a Black newspaper called the Broad Ax4. The Broad Ax was a popular African American newspaper published by Julius F. Taylor from 1895 to around 1930. As one historian noted, the newspaper was “the most controversial black newspaper in Chicago in the late nineteenth century5“.

In this edition, there was an article commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the Penn School, which was the school Towne founded and taught at for the majority of her life, and also the oldest learning institution for people of color in the south.

In all my 15 years of education, I have never once learned or read about this school, or its female abolitionist founders. I was surprised when reading about this, and even more surprised to learn it was among the first of its kind AND founded by women.  Prior to reading Epstein’s book, I did not know about the Sea Islands, Laura Towne, or the Penn School. Finding little bits of information like this makes me wonder what else is missing from our education. How can we as scholars and students work to make history less biased and more inclusive?

Works Cited:

[1] Epstein, Dena. “Reports of Black Folk Music, 1863-67” In Sinful Tunes and Spirituals: Black Folk Music to the Civil War. University of Illinois Press, 1977.

[2] Towne, Laura M. Letters and Diary of Laura M. Towne: Written from the Sea Islands of South Carolina, 1862-1884. Edited by Rupert Sargent Holland. United States, Massachusetts: Riverside Press, 1912.

[3] “Penn School Celebrates Fiftieth Anniversary. Occasion of Joy For All – General Robert Smalls Speaks.” Broad Ax (Chicago, Illinois), May 18, 1912: 2. Readex: African American Newspapers.

[4] “About The broad ax. [volume] (Salt Lake City, Utah) 1895-19??.” Library of Congress and National Endowment for the Humanities. Accessed October 11, 2021.

[5] Ibid.