Reminiscing on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s trips and impact at St. Helena Island

Dr. King frequented the coastal South Carolina region frequently to plan and worship.
Dr. King frequented the coastal South Carolina region frequently to plan and worship.
Published: Jan. 13, 2023 at 7:38 PM EST
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BEAUFORT COUNTY, S.C. (WBTV) - Perhaps it was the peaceful coastal setting or the trials of Spanish Moss hanging from the trees on St. Helena Island that attracted a man by the name of Martin Luther King.

While the civil rights leader was widely known for his urban demonstrations, South Carolina’s Low Country offered a dramatic change of scenery.

He was known to worship at St. Helena Island’s Brick Baptist Church.

That’s where Deacon Joseph McDominick remembers his visits going back to the 1960s.

“It was plan and work sessions,” he said. “It wasn’t no vacation. When you saw him, you knew there was something going on.”

Tune In: 2023 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. television special airs Monday on WBTV

What was going on meant there were likely public gatherings at the 50 acre Penn Center.

He was there before and after the 1963 March on Washington.

Dr. King also spent time on the 50 acre campus that next year when the government debated and put forth the civil rights act.

During the year of the crisis in Selma the social justice advocate made it to coastal South Carolina.

He was a guest at Penn Center until the year before he died in 1968.

Former Beaufort, S.C. Mayor Billy Keyserling remembers the visits.

“So when Dr. King came, there wasn’t much excitement in town,” he said. “But there was a lot of excitement on St. Helena Island, which is largely black.”

Keyserling also recalls being in the audience during the island gatherings as a teenager.

“It gave those of us who had the opportunity to be touched by his words or touch his hand this incredible rush to know that something was happening had some seeds not all of them and roots right here in this dirt,” he said.

Coming to St. Helena Island did several things for Dr. King.

It took him out of contentious environments well known for their volatile protests, reduced his risk for arrest, and allowed his creative juices to flow in a relaxed environment.

Another positive drawing card was the strong Gullah Geechie Culture.

Shequana Milton owns and operates the K and M Gullah Boutique.

She is in her 30s and wasn’t born during Dr. King’s visits to St. Helena, but takes pride in his message from decades ago.

“Hope is still alive,” Milton said. “We are all hoping for change daily. So hope is still alive.”

Back at the Penn Center, a relationship has been established with the National Park Service showcasing Dr. King’s work, and renovations are expected at the place he called home during his visits over five years.

Gantt cottage is on the list for a facelift that’s expected to start later this year.

Related: Looking back on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s connections in Charlotte