Towne, Laura Matilda (1825–1901)

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Towne, Laura Matilda (1825–1901)

American educator and abolitionist. Born on May 3, 1825, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; died of influenza on February 22, 1901, on St. Helena Island, South Carolina; daughter of John Towne (a businessman) and Sarah (Robinson) Towne; educated in Boston and Philadelphia; studied homeopathic medicine privately and enrolled in the Penn Medical University (no record of degree).

Taught at charity schools and practiced medicine (1850s–61); became a teacher on the Sea Islands of South Carolina (1862); co-founded and taught at the Penn School (1862–1901).

Laura Matilda Towne was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 1825, the third daughter and fourth child of Sarah Robinson Towne and John Towne. Her mother came from Coventry, England, while her father was a descendant of William Towne, who had immigrated to the Massachusetts Bay Colony from England in the 1630s. John Towne was an immensely successful businessman with a wide range of interests, including trading cotton and sugar, growing fruit, and operating steamboats between Pittsburgh and New Orleans. An energetic and skilled businesswoman, Sarah partnered him in many of these ventures before her death in 1833, not long after the birth of the couple's seventh child. Laura was then eight.

John moved his family to Boston, where he was the superintendent of the city's gas works. Returning to Pennsylvania in 1840, the family settled in a house in Philadelphia and a country estate outside the city. Now a very wealthy man, John became one of Philadelphia's leading citizens and benefactors until his death in 1851. His son John Henry Towne, a respected engineer, continued his generous tradition, and the Towne School of Engineering at the University of Pennsylvania resulted from his large bequest.

Laura Towne was educated in Boston and Philadelphia, and by her 20s had become interested in both medicine and the abolition of slavery. She studied homeopathic medicine privately under the direction of Dr. Constantine Hering, who had founded homeopathic clinics in and around Philadelphia. Towne also enrolled at the Penn Medical University; there is no evidence, however, that she received a degree, and the institution itself had a short existence. Towne's family belonged to the First Unitarian Church of Philadelphia, where her interest in abolishing slavery took root. William Henry Furness, the church's minister, was a leading abolitionist in Philadelphia and clearly encouraged Towne.

From the late 1850s until the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, Towne taught at several "charity schools" in the northeastern states. In Newport, Rhode Island, at the start of the war, she sought ways of serving the Union cause. In November 1861, Union troops captured and occupied the Sea Islands, a string of islands, including St. Helena and Port Royal, along the coast of South Carolina. These islands offered ideal conditions for the culture of long-staple cotton and thus had a large population of slaves. When their masters fled the advancing Union army, the slaves were abandoned without food, leadership, or organization; they quickly fell victim to disease and to the ill-treatment of soldiers. Over 10,000 former slaves had been abandoned in the Sea Islands alone. Salmon P. Chase, an abolitionist and secretary of the Treasury Department, sought solutions to the twin problems of helping them and saving the rich cotton crop. Chase appointed a young abolitionist from Boston named Edward L. Pierce to direct this relief effort, and Pierce quickly called for volunteers with skills in medicine, teaching, and the superintending of plantations. Laura Towne was one of the first to volunteer, and in April 1862, at age 36, she sailed to Port Royal with the backing of the Port Royal Relief Committee of Philadelphia.

The collection of volunteers at Port Royal set out to make the South Carolina Sea Islands an example of the benefits of emancipation and freedom, even though emancipation was not commonly accepted as one of the aims of the North early in the Civil War. Towne began her life on St. Helena Island as housekeeper and secretary to Pierce at his headquarters, but she expanded her duties to include practicing medicine, distributing clothing, and teaching school. She was described by Civil War veteran Thomas Wentworth Higginson as "the most energetic [person] in the department." Higginson observed her work while he recuperated from war wounds on the same plantation. She "prescribes for half the island & teaches the other half," he wrote, "besides keeping house beautifully & partly carrying on the plantation."

In 1862, Ellen Murray , a close friend of Towne's from Newport, joined her on St. Helena. That September, the two founded Penn School in a local Baptist church. One of the first schools for former slaves, it survived longer than most. By 1864, however, Towne's Unitarianism had alienated the Baptists, and Penn School moved into its own building. The new schoolhouse, prefabricated in Philadelphia by backers, was shipped in sections to the island.

A plain woman, Laura Towne was stout, short, and far from gentle. "I have the reputation of being able to look after my things pretty sharply," she said. She was well educated and chose a curriculum for her school founded on solid academics, including reading, writing, arithmetic, geography, and Greek and Latin. Other educational institutions that were established in the South during this period, such as the Hampton Institute and the Tuskegee Institute founded by Booker T. Washington, were fundamentally vocational schools. Towne's Penn School was not influenced by this leaning during her lifetime. By 1867, Towne found teaching more satisfying than practicing medicine, which she believed she did "badly and very inefficiently," and she was to devote the rest of her life to education. Unlike other Northerners, Towne was influenced by the rising spirit of independence of the ex-slaves she taught; she was pleased with the decline of the docile Southern attitude and the growth of independent thinking. Politically, Towne was a staunch Republican and a Northern sympathizer who had limited contact with the Southern white residents on the mainland.

In the decades following the end of the Civil War, Penn School provided the only secondary education available to the African-Americans who lived on the Sea Islands. By 1870, it included a normal school for training other teachers, who also worked on the islands. Towne took up other responsibilities besides teaching; she served as the local public health officer, an amateur legal adviser, and temperance leader. As a member of the Band of Hope, she was one of 1,500 who attempted to eliminate liquor. In her legal capacity, with no known training in the field, she helped the islanders to become the owners of the plantation lands they had worked all their lives. She also made the school a unifying force in the community by conducting annual graduation ceremonies that drew former pupils from throughout the islands. For almost 40 years, Towne volunteered her services; the "dowry money" bequeathed by her father and money inherited from her eldest brother after his death in 1875 were her sources of support. Penn School was endowed by several organizations: the Pennsylvania Freedmen's Relief Association, the Benezet Society of Germantown, Pennsylvania, and Towne's family.

In 1867, Towne purchased Frogmore, an abandoned plantation on St. Helena. After the house was renovated, she and Murray lived there for the rest of Towne's life. The women made occasional trips to the North and relaxed by gardening, surf bathing, and enjoying the companionship of a succession of dogs. Towne had attacks of malaria over a number of years, but on February 22, 1901, she succumbed to a bout of influenza at age 75. Her casket was carried by a simple mule cart to the Port Royal ferry, accompanied along the route by several hundred of the residents of the Sea Islands who sang the spirituals she had loved in life. Her body, returned to Philadelphia, was buried in the family plot in Laurel Hill Cemetery.

Ellen Murray retired from teaching soon after Towne's death, and their school was renamed the Penn Normal, Industrial, and Agricultural School. Rossa B. Cooley , a graduate of Vassar and a teacher at the Hampton Institute, assumed the leadership of the school and modified the curriculum to stress home economics for girls and agriculture for boys, in keeping with the practical education advocated by Booker T. Washington. A larger school building was constructed in 1904, and an industrial building was added in 1912. In 1948, the school was incorporated into the segregated public school system of the state of South Carolina. By the 1960s, it had become a community center providing civic activities and adult education.


James, Edward T., ed. Notable American Women, 1607–1950. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1971.

McHenry, Robert, ed. Famous American Women. NY: Dover, 1980.

Gillian S. Holmes , freelance writer, Hayward, California