Esau Jenkins

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Esau Jenkins (July 3, 1910 – October 30, 1972) was a South Carolina Afro-American Human Rights leader, businessman, and community organizer. He was the founder and moving spirit of many organizations and institutions which helped improved the political, educational, housing, health and economic conditions of his fellows.

Esau Jenkins in 1960 on St. Johns Island, South Carolina

Jenkins grew up during the times of segregation, when educational opportunities were not available to him - but he knew the importance of education and was determined that his children and those of others would not be denied. In the 1940s, Esau and his wife Janie used their money from farming and selling produce to purchase several buses. These buses were used to transport their own children and others on the Sea Islands to school in Charleston and thus further their education. In 1951, he was instrumental in the establishment of Haut Gap High School on Johns Island, so all children on the island would have the educational opportunity to better themselves. Today, Haut Gap is an advance studies magnet middle school.

Jenkins’ buses also transported workers to jobs in the Charleston area. During the bus rides, Jenkins and his wife would teach their adult passengers the information needed to pass the literacy exam, so they could become registered voters. Jenkins realized that he wanted to educate and reach more people, so he started the Citizenship School on the island's The Progressive Club (listed in 2007 on the National Register of Historic Places ). The Progressive Club was a co-op started in 1948 by Jenkins and other families on Johns Island. Notable individuals participated in workshops including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and many others. The co-op housed a community grocery store, gas station, day care, classroom space and allowed residents to trade goods and services to help each other in times of need. The school was so effective that it served as the model for other citizenship schools established throughout the South to teach adult education, basic literacy and political education classes and workshops, resulting in thousands of citizens becoming registered voters.

Jenkins created the Citizens Committee of Charleston and founded the C.O. Federal Credit Union in 1966. This credit union helped to further the economic advancement of the community. Residents were able to secure low-interest loans to purchase homes, businesses, vehicles and even send their children to college.

Jenkins was also one of the founders of the Rural Mission. This initiative provided services for migrant and seasonal workers on the island.

Before his death in 1972, Jenkins chartered the Sea Island Comprehensive Health Care Corporation. Which provides low-income housing, a nursing home and a comprehensive health care center for the Sea Island residents.

Jenkins and his wife owned and operated a fruit and vegetable stand, a fleet of buses, a motel and restaurant in Charleston, SC and also in Atlantic Beach, SC.

The story of Esau Jenkins and the Progressive Club will be included in the permanent exhibit titled, “Defining Freedom, Defending Freedom: The era of segregation” in the new Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. Mr. Jenkins was known for his iconic Volkswagen van he personally used for his work in the community and throughout the South. Two panels of his VW van, with his motto: “Love is Progress, Hate is Expensive” will be on display.

The Smithsonian, the Jenkins family, and the Preservation Society of Charleston hosted the van artifacts send off to the Smithsonian on June 1, 2014. This event was included in the Piccolo Spoleto Festival and several hundred attended. All local Charleston news outlets covered the story via interviews and articles about the event.

Jenkins died on October 30, 1972. His funeral was officiated by the Rev. Ralph Abernathy. After his death many institutions, programs, a bridge and a street were named for him.



  • Carawan, Guy; Candie, Carowan (1994). Ain't You Got a Right to the Tree of Life?: The People of Johns Island South Carolina―Their Faces, Their Words, and Their Songs. ISBN 978-0820316437.
  • Suttles, Sherry (2009). "Esau Jenkins Motel and Restaurant on Atlantic Beach". Atlantic Beach. Images of America. p. 37. ISBN 9780738568201.
  • Estes, Steve (2015). Charleston in Black and White: Race and Power in the South after the Civil Rights Movement. ISBN 978-1469622323.

External links

  • "FARMER SOWED HOPES, GREW VOTING SCHOOLS". The State. July 2, 1994. pp. A1.
  • Esau Jenkins Papers at the Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture at the College of Charleston
  • Progressive Club,
  • Sea Island Comprehensive Health Care Corporation (
  • Community Owned Federal Credit Union (
  • May 10, 1962 New York Amsterdam News article by Dr. King introduces two unknown heroes of the Civil Rights Movement in the South, People in Action: Unknown Heroes
  • "Faith in Action: The First Citizenship School on Johns Island, South C" by Amanda Shrader Jordan - Digital Commons @ East Tennessee State University -
  • AT&T South Carolina African American History Calendar,
  • Civil Rights Digital Library,
  • Esau Jenkins Memorial Bridge,
  • The Charleston Chronicle, Love is Progress-The Esau Jenkins Story
  • Esau Jenkins van send off event, 2014 Piccolo Spoleto Program Guide - Piccolo Spoleto Festival
  • Credit Union National Association News,,_civil_rights_leader_receives_Smithsonian_honor
  • United Methodist Church, View pdf - United Methodist Church
  • Progressive Club,
  • Digital Collections in SC - Digital Collections - LibGuides at South Carolina State Library
  • Local Civil Rights pioneer's van sent to Smithsonian | News, Weather, Sports, Breaking News | ...
  • Photo of Esau Jenkins at the podium at Emmanuel AME Church, Dr. King seated behind,
  • Huffington Post, 11 Baby Names Inspired By Civil Rights Activists
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