Educator. Towne was born on May 3, 1825, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to John Towne and Sarah Robinson. During her childhood the family relocated to Philadelphia. The Townes regularly attended the First Unitarian Church of Philadelphia, where the minister William Henry Furness strongly influenced Towne’s development into a militant abolitionist. When the Civil War commenced in April 1861, she was working as a teacher in Newport, Rhode Island.
By December 1861 Federal forces had occupied St. Helena Island, as well as other barrier islands on the South Carolina coast. White planters fled to the mainland, abandoning thousands of African American slaves. Federal military authorities called upon physicians and teachers to volunteer and provide vital aid for nearly ten thousand freedmen. Among the earliest to offer her services was Towne, who arrived in April 1862 at Port Royal. She was the official representative of the Port Royal Relief Committee of Philadelphia.
From her arrival Towne was determined to ensure that the “Port Royal Experiment” would be a success. Initially, she concentrated on dispensing supplies, including medicines, to St. Helena’s black residents. Her primary accomplishment, however, was the founding of Penn School, the earliest educational facility on the island. By September 1862, with her longtime friend from Philadelphia, Ellen Murray, Towne had started teaching in a local Baptist church sanctuary. But the arrival of prefabricated building materials from Pennsylvania enabled the two women to move into a new schoolhouse.
At first, Penn School was the only local facility providing African Americans with secondary education. After 1870 it also served as a normal school, training black teachers to serve throughout South Carolina. Along with her educational duties, for many years Towne served as the local public health officer. She led long-standing temperance efforts to eliminate the liquor trade within the Sea Islands. Although not an attorney, Towne often provided sound legal advice to numerous African American families seeking to purchase land on St. Helena.
During her forty years of residency on the Sea Islands, Towne became conversant in Gullah and was a perceptive observer of African American folk culture. In 1867 she purchased and renovated Frogmore, an abandoned St. Helena plantation, where she lived with Murray until her death. Despite her lengthy residence, Towne seldom ventured to the mainland. Consequently, her contacts with white South Carolinians were negligible. Throughout adulthood Towne remained a staunch Republican Party partisan.
During her final two decades Towne experienced recurring bouts of malaria, which seriously undermined her health. She died of influenza on February 22, 1901, at Frogmore. Numerous African Americans, including many former pupils, followed the mule cart that conveyed Towne’s remains to the Port Royal ferry. She was interred in her family plot in Laurel Hill Cemetery, Philadelphia.
Rose, Willie Lee. Rehearsal for Reconstruction: The Port Royal Experiment. 1964. Reprint, Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1999.