Our History

signwall01In the mid twentieth century, after World War II, African Americans throughout the US and especially in the south were denied their rights to vote and to an equal education.  The Progressive Club was established in 1948 by Esau Jenkins to help his neighbors on Johns Island exercise these civil rights even before the term was used to identify an era in American history.

The Progressive Club moved into its first home in 1957 when the old Mt Zion School building was purchased and renovated by the community.  In 1963 a new building was erected on River Rd at the intersection of Royal Oak Dr., ¼ mile east of the current Mt Zion Elementary School.

Original VW bus used by Esau Jenkins to bring voters into Charleston
Original VW bus used by Esau Jenkins to bring voters into Charleston

The new Club building included a meeting room, a gym, a kitchen, a dormitory for visitors and a community store.  The building was all but destroyed by hurricane Hugo 1989.  In 2006 a project was undertaken to stabilize the old structure with a view towards restoring it and once again opening it for community use.  The Progressive Club was recently designated as a National Historic site and a roadside marker now indicates its location.

The Progressive Club’s programs included a day care center, a coop grocery store and recreational programs.

Most notably, the Progressive Club under Esau Jenkins leadership, with the help of the Highlander Center of New Market TN, established citizenship schools in 1957 to help African Americans pass the literacy tests that were common at the time as a qualification for voting.

Citizenship class at the Progressive Club
Citizenship class at the Progressive Club. (Courtesy Avery Research Center, College of Charleston, Charleston, SC / Ain’t You Got a Right to the Tree of Life / Ida Berman.)

These citizenship schools became the model for programs throughout the south east under the sponsorship of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference which eventually led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965.  The Club was also an organizational center for the 1969 Charleston hospital strike.

Many civil rights leaders visited the Progressive Club during the 60’s and 70’s including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Septima Clark, Andrew Young, Rev. Ralph, Abernathy, Kwame Ture (Stokely Carmichael) and Miles Horton.