The museum at the Penn Center on St. Helena Island. Photo by Andy Brack.

An old African adage warns: “Until the lion gets its own historian, the history of the hunt will always favor the hunter.” It’s a reminder of the role that power plays in determining which stories are cataloged into our collective memory – and, tragically, which tales of the less privileged are resigned to the ash heap.

Moore in 2019 as president of the International African American Museum.

The proverb posits that history is less a literal recitation of events and more a curated collection of nostalgic narratives that those in power choose to tell about themselves, amended to be passed on to future generations in ways that will always favor the victor. 

Still, in 2023, it strikes me as bizarre that we continue to unearth major elements of African-American history. Beyond simply elevating under-told stories, we are excavating heretofore unknown events and people that had a consequential impact on our country.

Juneteenth, which we will observe Monday, has become increasingly recognized over the last few decades, bursting into prominence following the summer of 2020. It marks the anniversary of June 19, 1865, when, finally, all African Americans were free from centuries-long chattel slavery, and the last enslaved African Americans learned of their liberation.

The Big Gun Shoot

Now, I’d like to tell you another story – straight from the Lowcountry of South Carolina – that deserves to be similarly resurrected. This story marks not the last day enslaved people walked as free men and women in the United States, but the very first.

On November 7, 1861 — almost four full years before the inaugural Juneteenth — Union forces captured Port Royal Sound in Confederate South Carolina during one of the first major naval operations of the Civil War.

When the area’s White residents subsequently fled, they left behind the vast majority of enslaved Africans. Those people were not legally free – they were considered “contrabands of war” – but they were, in fact, essentially emancipated. 

The Battle of Port Royal is still known by many of the Gullah descendants of those who were liberated by the name that their ancestors bestowed upon the event: the Big Gun Shoot.

So if Juneteenth marks the last day of slavery in America, the Big Gun Shoot signifies the beginning of the end of that most barbaric practice. And if we hold that Juneteenth is an important occasion for remembrance, then the Big Gun Shoot surely is at least as important. 

Since the first enslaved Africans arrived on our shores with the Spanish in the 1500s, the Big Gun Shoot was the very first day that enslaved Africans, en masse, experienced life outside the bonds of slavery in this country. It is an extraordinary day in American history, undoubtedly worthy of study and celebration.

The Big Gun Shoot also resulted in the creation of a prominent institution in St. Helena, S.C., known as Penn School – where my great-grandmother Elizabeth Smalls was among the very first students in the early 1860s. 

Before then, it was illegal to teach an enslaved person how to read or write, and schools for the enslaved did not exist at that time.

After emancipation, however, newly freed people were consumed by a pair of pressing objectives. The first was a desperate quest to find lost loved ones; the second was to figure out how to put food on the table.

Remember, for formerly enslaved people, there were no government programs providing federal assistance, career counseling or job placement. There was no G.I. Bill waiting for them upon their release from bondage. One day they were enslaved. The next, they were on their own. 

So, in 1862 – mere months after the Big Gun Shoot and still 1,000 days or so before the end of the Civil War – Penn School was founded as the very first place of learning in the Confederate South for formerly enslaved people. 

Penn School taught these newly freed Americans how to read and write. It taught them professional trades and prepared them for life in Reconstruction. And over the generations, Penn School has evolved to become an invaluable source of history and culture, as well as a key presence in the community. 

Moreover, Penn Center, as it is now known, occupied an incredibly influential position in the civil rights movement. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his fellow activists frequently met and worked at Penn Center, and King’s “I Have a Dream” speech was even authored there.

Dr. John Hope Franklin, one of the most revered African American studies historians, described the Penn Center as “the most historic site of African American history in the country.” And if you understand that African American history is American history, then it is no stretch to say that the Penn Center is one of the most significant historical sites in our country.

So on this Juneteenth – and again, later this year, on the 162nd anniversary of the Big Gun Shoot – let’s celebrate the progress that has been made in honoring African American history, while recommitting ourselves to uplifting those stories that still have yet to be told.

Michael B. Moore is the founding president of the International African American Museum and a Democratic candidate for U.S. Congress in South Carolina’s 1st congressional district.

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