My grandparents’ names were Esau and Janie Jenkins.
Those names mean a lot to folks here in Charleston, and I want everyone to know their story, the way they shaped this place, and what it means for me to be a part of this family.
Growing up in the Jim Crow South, Esau and Janie were denied so many opportunities, and they were determined to provide those very same opportunities to the generations that followed them.
Esau, Janie, and their friends committed themselves to the African American community of Johns Island, a large part of which is within Charleston’s borders. When kids couldn’t make it from the island into the city for school, they purchased buses to transport the children themselves. Those buses would also help workers from Johns Island access jobs in Charleston.
They created clinics to provide health care to island residents. They helped to create Haut Gap High School, which is still teaching kids on Johns Island today. When banks wouldn’t serve African American residents, Esau founded the C.O. Federal Credit Union, providing an economic lifeline to the community. Esau opened a motel in Atlantic Beach, so that African Americans from across the state could have a place to stay when visiting one of the only beaches available to us at the time.
In all the many ways that the nation marginalized the African American community – education, transportation, voting access, even entertainment – Esau, Janie and others came together and found a way to create access.
Along with Joe Williams, Esau opened the Progressive Club on Johns Island, the first citizenship school in the country. The Progressive Club hosted many services – a school, a gas station, a grocery store, a place to sleep – but most importantly, it was a place for the African American community to gather, learn, and gain the skills to be politically engaged citizens. When Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. came to town, he would often stay at the Progressive Club.
So much of what I’ve described to you shaped the fortunes of the community here, but for me … it was the landscape of my childhood. Growing up, I worked at the Progressive Club. I helped the guests at my grandparents’ hotel on Atlantic Beach. Our whole family became involved in what Esau and Janie built.
They built up their community. They gave so much of themselves. They were my grandparents. And as a young girl, I sat at their feet, just soaking up all the wisdom they had to offer.
I remember when our grandchildren were all young, eating with Esau and Janie. When it was time to bring my grandfather’s dinner tray into the kitchen, we all competed for the right to do so. We considered it to be an honor.
Today, my whole family carries that tray forward in some way, following the example that was set for us. I’m so proud to be walking in my grandparents’ legacy, in my day to day life and especially in the work here at the International African American Museum.
I didn’t tell this story for a long time, but today I find it pours out of me like rushing water. It’s part of how I live out the IAAM’s mission, but simply – these were my grandparents, this is what they did, and I want everyone to know who they were.
This is just one of many stories we want to gather, to preserve, to shout out to the world, during Black History Month and every other day of the year. These stories are all around us, waiting to be uncovered.
Maybe you have your own story that belongs here in this museum – and I can assure you, we want to hear it too.
Let us continue to tell our stories and seek out those that are yet to be told. This is how we bring the museum’s mission to life, no matter where we are.
Rev. DeMett E. Jenkins
Lilly Director of Education and Engagement for Faith-Based Communities