Towne, Laura Matilda

Towne's abolitionist ideas led her to an island near South Carolina where she and Ellen Murray started Penn School. Her background in homeopathic medicine allowed her to treat and befriend the freed slaves. Laura's example combats racism, and she started a legacy of respect and equality.

Biographical Highlights

Laura Matilda Towne’s (1825-1901) abolitionist ideas led her to St. Helena, an island near South Carolina where she and Ellen Murray started Penn School. Laura ran that school for 40 years and lived the rest of her life on the island (White 2004). Laura Towne was one of the first of her time to set up a school specifically to educate freed slaves.

Her background in homeopathic medicine allowed her to treat and befriend the freed slaves. She was sought after for medical relief, weddings, funerals, academic help, etc. She was a vital asset to the community.

Historic Roots

Laura was born in Pittsburgh into a wealthy family. She later moved to Philadelphia. She was a well-educated and gifted student. Her training was mostly in homeopath medicine and she used this knowledge on the island when she encountered epidemics such as dysentery, yellow fever and many others (White, 2004).

She moved to St. Helena, South Carolina with hopes of helping the war (Civil War) effort and spreading the ideas of equality and independence (Wolf, 1997). She traveled as part of the Port Royal Experiment. The Port Royal Experiment was a large-scale government operation to help educate former slaves. It promoted reading and writing as well as social and moral development (White 2004). Needless to say, Laura and others there to help the freed slaves, were not welcomed by white southerners and risked being ostracized by Philadelphians.

Laura also went South because of missionary responsibilities. She felt very compelled in her beliefs of equality and was supported by her church and minister. Laura attended the First Utilitarian Church in Philadelphia where William Henry Furness was the minister. The support of her church and individual beliefs were enough for her to move to South Carolina and devote herself to helping others.

Through her work she gained respect and care for the freed slaves. She taught them not only to read and write but also to have a sense of independence. She fostered the notion that the former slaves did not have to be subservient. She began her work from an abolitionist standpoint and worked through the war and the regrouping years post war.

Laura and Ellen both adopted several African American children and raised them as their own (PBS). She lived on a small inheritance and worked for free. Various Associations and Societies in Pennsylvania financially supported the school since from the beginning with several of Towne’s family members paying for the school for a number of years (White 2004).

She not only taught she was also involved in the distribution of supplies, officiating at wedding and funerals, as well as using her medical training for other such emergencies (White 2004). Laura worked as a mediator between the Government and the freed slaves. She informed the islanders of their right to own land and helped them purchase land at a reasonable price.

On the island, Laura learned and embraced the culture and rituals of the African Americans. She particularly admired the African music incorporated in their church worship. It had different rhythmic patterns and a style that was formed from the West African culture. She was able to blend her liberal faith with that of the Africans tribal faith to appreciate both forms of worship.


Laura Towne is an example of an antiracist (Jonsberg 2002). Her example combats the notion of white against black. It helps to mix different races. Laura stands as an excellent example in history of following her convictions and going against the norms. She stands as an antiracist who dedicated her life educating freed slaves and helping them establish life post slavery.

The Penn School, which she started, is still a strong presence in St. Helena as the Penn Center. She started a legacy of respect and equality. The mere presence of the school building shows that even before the Civil War people believed in equality. The school offered the freed slaves the opportunity for independence as well as teaching them survival post slavery (

Ties to the Philanthropic Sector

Laura Towne has ties to the Philanthropic sector; her entire life was dedicated to philanthropy. She gave up everything to move south and promote equality through the education and advocacy for African Americans.

The Penn School, named for William Penn, still stands as a reminder of philanthropic spirit. Martin Luther King met at the Penn School prior to his march in 1963 ( It was seen as a safe haven as well as an opportunity for the African American population.

Laura and the Penn School contributed to the Abolitionist movement and the Civil Rights Movement. She was very far ahead of her time for her views on slavery and equality. She endlessly pursued advocacy for equality and the world is a better place because of it.

Key Related Ideas

Port Royal Experiment: A large-scale operation put on by the Government to help educate former slaves. It promoted reading and writing but also freed slaves’ development socially and morally.

Gideon’s Band: These were missionaries (mainly from Boston) that moved to St. Helena Island to spread the word of God to the recently freed slaves. They viewed the African Americans as barbaric in customs and wanted to civilize them in their beliefs and lifestyle. Although Laura did not participate in this band, it took place during the time she was on the island.

Civil War: The Civil War was a major event that took place during Laura’s life. She moved to St. Helena’s before the war and lived there through and after the war. The Civil War divided the country and pinned neighbor against neighbor. It was that era that formed people’s opinions on the work that Laura performed.

Important People Related to the Topic 

  • Charlotte Forten (1837-1914) was the first northern African-American schoolteacher to go south to teach former slaves. She arrived on St. Helena Island in 1862 and worked with Laura Towne fro two years. Today she is best remembered for her diaries, which are the reflection of the times and of an educated, cultured woman. She remained dedicated to social justice and equality all her life.

  • William Henry Furness (1802-1896.) William was the minister at First Unitarian Church in Philadelphia for 50 years, with Towne in the congregation every Sunday that she was in town. He graduated from Harvard in Arts and Theology and was minister at the church for over 50 years (Famous Americans). He was also very passionate about song writing and his list of works is extensive.
  • Ellen Murray (1834-1908). Ellen was a fellow liberalist who traveled from Boston to St. Helena to help the freed slaves. Laura and Ellen opened the Penn School and continued to educate the freed slaves.

Related Nonprofit Organizations

  • The Penn Center is now the organization that Laura and Ellen started in the 1862 to educate the people on the island. It is a national historic landmark that was once home to the Penn School. Today it serves as a place where records are kept as well as a historical site open for visitors and tours. There nature trails and rustic buildings help show what life was like back during the Civil War era (

  • The Penn School was the original education facility founded by Laura and Ellen to teach the recently freed slaves about independence. It was originally funded through Government projects and later relied totally on donations. It was the first of its kind and impacted many lives. ( 

  • The First Unitarian Church of Philadelphia – this was the church that Laura attending up until she left for St. Helena. The Pastor (William Henry Furness) was very influential in Laura’s beliefs and kind natured personality. (

Related Web Sites

PBS did a wonderful piece on extraordinary teachers that included work on Laura Towne and other influential teachers.

The Penn Center honors and preserves the history that Laura Towne started with the Penn School. The organization has archived records as well as serving as a historical landmark (

The African American Registry has Towne listed and a very nice write up on her effort to educate the freed slaves and blacks of the South Carolina islands. It was interesting that Towne is not African American, but is on this list for her extraordinary work for the African American population (

This website lists many famous Americans that have impacted the US and the formation of the country including Laura and her minister, William Furness (

This website has enough information for any Civil War buff. There is a nice section on the Port Royal Experiment as well as other relevant information for the St. Helena area (

Bibliography and Internet Sources

Famous Americans. William Henry Furness. Accessed 29 Nov 2005.

Jonsberg, Sara Dalmas. Yankee schoolmarms in the South: Models or monsters? English Journal, 19, 4, 2002: 75-82. In ProQuest. Accessed 29 Nov 2005. Available from GVSU Libraries.

PBS Online. Only a Teacher: Schoolhouse Pioneers. Accessed 30 Dec 2005.

PBS Online. Only a Teacher: Schoolhouse Pioneers. Accessed 30 Dec 2005.

White, Nan L. Starr King School for the Ministry. Laura Matilda Towne: Liberty, Love and Laughter. Paper for Unitarian Universalist History Class 2004. Accessed 29 Dec 2005.

Wolf, Kurt J. Laura M. Towne and the freed people of South Carolina, 1862-1902. South Carolina Historical Magazine, 4, 1997: 375-405. In ABC-CLIO. Accessed 29 Nov 2005. Available from GVSU Libraries.