Towne, Laura M(athilda)

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TOWNE, Laura M(athilda)

Born 3 May 1825, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; died 22 February 1901, St. Helena Island, South Carolina

Daughter of John and Sarah Robinson Towne

Laura M. Towne's father was from Massachusetts, her mother from Coventry, England. After the early death of her mother, the family moved to Boston, where the children were educated, and later to Philadelphia.

The Towne family became interested in abolition in Boston and had its abolitionist convictions reinforced by the sermons of Dr. William Henry Furness at the First Unitarian Church in Philadelphia. Towne became active in the movement while studying at Woman's Medical College and with Dr. Constantine Hering, the famous homeopath. When the Civil War began, she immediately sought to do what she could in the Union cause.

What came to be called the Port Royal Experiment provided Towne with the opportunity to engage in the teaching and medical and missionary work that was to occupy her for the last 40 years of her life. When Union forces occupied the Sea Islands of South Carolina seven months after the fall of Fort Sumter, resulting in the total abandonment of the islands by the white planters, the islands became an experiment in freedom for 10,000 slaves far behind Confederate lines.

Northern abolitionists, philanthropists, and antislavery government forces quickly organized contingents of volunteer teachers and labor superintendents to travel to the Sea Islands. In April 1862, Towne sailed from New York to Port Royal with one such group, sponsored by the Freedmen's Aid Society of Pennsylvania.

The freed slaves of the Sea Islands had been kept by the cotton aristocracy in abject poverty, superstition, and ignorance. Facing not only the difficulties of providing education, health care, and food and clothing for the people but also the unhealthy, smallpox-ridden climate and the constant threat of the return of Confederate soldiers, the Northern "Gideonites," as many were called, had to be a hardy, dedicated lot to remain and to succeed.

Not all remained, and not all succeeded with the tasks of the experiment in freedom, but Towne did, and she recorded her experiences in letters and a diary. She established the Penn School on St. Helena Island—a school which had continuous independent existence until 1948, when it became part of the South Carolina state school system—and soon impressed the community, Northern visitors, and the Freedmen's Bureau with the progress of pupils who received warm personal encouragement and no corporal punishment. Her medical training also made her the closest thing to a doctor the island had, and she spent long hours doctoring and nursing blacks and whites alike.

Towne eventually bought one of the abandoned St. Helena Island estates, Frogmore, and lived and worked out her life there with her friend Ellen Murray, returning to the North infrequently for holidays and family visits.

The manuscripts of Towne's diary and letters are more complete and somewhat more pungent in rebuking the rebels than is the version edited by Rupert S. Holland in 1912. But the edited version of Towne's writing, The Letters and Diary of Laura M. Towne, nevertheless gives a lively, personal account of an important sideline in Civil War history. Towne's letters and notes not only cover her comments on the major military and political figures and events of the Port Royal Experiment but are also sensitive descriptions of ex-slaves, of day-to-day existence, of the halting progress she sees in education, health care, and self-sufficiency. The primary historical account of the Port Royal Experiment, Rehearsal for Reconstruction, by Willie Lee Rose, relies heavily on the firsthand accounts of Towne and other similar Northern workers.

The impact of Northern white women school teachers on Southern black education after the Civil War is often forgotten. Towne was a forerunner, and her book is a forgotten link in our history.

Other Works:

Laura M. Towne's diary is at the University of North Carolina; many letters from Towne are in the James Miller McKim Collection at Cornell University.


Abbott, M., The Freedmen's Bureau in South Carolina, 1865-1872 (1967). Evans, M., Martha Schofield: Pioneer Negro Educator (1916). Rose, W., Rehearsal for Reconstruction (1964). Simkins, F., and R. Woody, South Carolina during Reconstruction (1932). Tindall, G. B., South Carolina Negroes: 1877-1900 (1966). Williamson, J., After Slavery: The Negro in South Carolina during Reconstruction, 1861-1877 (1965).

Other references:

Journal of Negro History (1923).