The Progressive Club was approved as a National Historic Site in 2007. The following is from the National Register nomination for The Progressive Club, prepared by John Laurens and Leigh Scott.
Johns Island History
Johns Island is separated from the mainland of South Carolina by a network of rivers, tidal creeks and inlets. Being the largest sea island in Charleston County, it is thirty-two miles long and thirty miles wide. Johns Island’s fertile land served the production of important cash crops such as indigo and rice during the colonial and antebellum period and later sea-island cotton. During the colonial period and into the twentieth century, the majority of the population of Johns Island was black. The majority of the black colonists were slaves, bringing with them much of their African heritage. Island slaves were agricultural workers or house servants; a minority worked in skilled occupations such as carpentry, brick masonry, blacksmithing or boatman.
After the Civil War and the emancipation of slaves, Johns Island blacks began acquiring land with their new freedoms; in the 1880s blacks owned approximately ten percent of the lands on the Sea Islands of Johns Island and nearby James Island. African-Americans also began establishing their own institutions after the Civil War on Johns Island, in particular churches. In addition, praise houses were an important institution to the island; they provided a limited setting for interdenominational religious services as well as for social, fraternal and charitable functions. While emancipated slaves gained the right to vote, this changed with the adoption of the South Carolina Constitution of 1895, which restricted black suffrage. After this time, prospective voters had to read and write any section of the state constitution to the registrar’s satisfaction in order to qualify to vote. Until the construction of Haut Gap High School in 1951, schools for blacks on Johns Island only went to the seventh grade with one teacher for all grades. With blacks receiving little to no formal educational training, their participation in elections after the 1895 amendment dropped significantly.
During the Reconstruction period from 1865-1876, federal law provided equal civil rights protection. This ended with the passing and enforcement of Jim Crow laws by state and local governments in southern states between 1876 and 1965. Jim Crow laws mandated “separate but equal” status for African-Americans, allowing whites to legally segregate blacks. Public schools, public places, and public transportation had separate facilities or designated places for blacks. On Johns Island, where the majority of African-Americans lived in extreme poverty, public facilities were scarce to begin with. This severely limited island blacks from equal education, use of public civic and health facilities and social services. This lack of resources combined with widespread economic poverty of African-American Island residents had a significant impact on their quality of life.
Johns Island remained a very isolated community, both culturally and physically, well into the twentieth century. A regular ferry service was established in 1916 to carry islanders to and from the city of Charleston, which took eight hours through creeks and swamps. Not until 1926 was a bridge built to connect Johns Island with James Island, which was connected to the peninsula of Charleston by a series of bridges. Due to its isolation, the Islanders retained their repository of a rich Gullah culture which developed out of African, Caribbean and European influences. Connecting the island by a roadway afforded the opportunity for island blacks to take better jobs in the city as well as attend the more modern, larger public schools in the city, provided transportation was available.
The Progressive Club
Two African-American Island residents, Esau Jenkins and Joe Williams, organized the Progressive Club in 1948. These two visionaries realized the necessity for an organization such as the Progressive Club when an African-American Johns Island resident, Sammy Grant, was shot by a white man for kicking at the man’s dog in an effort to defend himself from an attack. When the white magistrate refused to issue an indictment against the dog owner, finding that the dog owner “had a right” to shoot Grant, Jenkins and Williams organized Island residents to pool their funds to hire an attorney to appeal the magistrate’s decision. The dog owner was eventually tried, convicted and fined for the aggravated assault and battery. From these beginnings, the Progressive Club took shape and came into being. The organization received its Charter #1145 in 1948 from the Secretary of State of South Carolina.
Esau Jenkins was the Progressive Club’s first president. Under his leadership and guidance, the 15 members of the Club in 1948 met in the Moving Star Hall every third Sunday and collected monthly dues for the purpose of aiding any of its members who had to contend with the legal and law enforcement systems. This money was used to pay bail for African-Americans often charged for unjust violations. After a period of time, the Club began to lend to its members funds to buy cars, fertilizer, and other necessities to alleviate the hardships of Island life for its African-American residents.
In 1948 Esau Jenkins also decided to buy buses to transport islanders who commuted into Charleston to work. According to Jenkins,
“I decided to get a group in the bus in the mornings and teach them how to read the part of the Constitution that we have to read before we are able to become registered citizens.”
One of the passengers—Mrs. Alice Wine—asked him to help her learn to read and write so that she could get her voter registration certificate and become a “first class citizen.” Jenkins not only responded to her request, but secured and circulated copies of the South Carolina constitution and voting law among all his passengers.
In August 1954, Esau Jenkins was encouraged to travel to Tennessee to attend a workshop and to meet with Miles Horton of Highlander Folk Center. The events, which led to Highlander’s involvement with Johns Island, began with Anna Kelly’s attendance in 1953 at a Highlander workshop on school desegregation. The following summer she persuaded Septima Clark to attend a similar workshop. Clark, a native of Johns Island, would eventually begin working as a field representative for the Highlander Folk Center. She had been fired as an elementary school teacher by the State of South Carolina because of her membership in the NAACP. At the August 1954 workshop Jenkins explained that the Island community needed trained persons to establish an adult education and citizenship class to teach adult African-American Island residents how to read and write. The week’s workshop stimulated Esau’s interest in developing more political action on the island by finding and interesting more people in getting the Negro population registered. He planned to run for Trustee on the Board of Education, “not that there is any hope of getting elected,” Esau said, “but to prove that a Negro can run for office and not get killed.” Jenkins invited Highlander staff to attend a NAACP-sponsored dinner given in Charleston for Judge Waring and Thurgood Marshall on November 6, 1954. Zilphia Horton accepted Jenkins’s invitation to attend as well as his invitation to stay at his home that weekend. The purpose of this trip was to further investigate Esau’s possibilities as a potential trainee for democratic leadership under a grant funded by the Emil Schwarzhaupt Foundation, and to learn more about Johns Island as a possible demonstration community and to establish friendly contacts.” On the basis of her report, it was decided, “Johns Island had good possibilities as a demonstration community.”
Eventually it was Jenkins’ decision to run for school trustee that provided the incentive for blacks on Johns Island to register. To run for school trustee, it was necessary to get 100 signatures. His strategy of trying to get a group of blacks to register each month throughout the year maintained his efforts’ momentum. Jenkins lost the election but a political base of registered voters began. Miles Horton and the Highlander Folk School continued to work with Esau Jenkins, making trips to Johns Island, and eventually by the middle of 1956, twenty leaders from Johns Island had participated in a workshop at Highlander.
Esau Jenkins, with Septima Clark as a field representative for Highlander, used his Club meetings to promote greater interest in community involvement. Clark, with her niece Bernice Robinson, developed the curriculum for the Citizenship School program with organizational aid from the Highlander Folk School. In the latter part of 1956, Charleston County placed the vacant Mt. Zion Elementary School for sale. Jenkins had been thinking about a building to house a kind of cooperative supply enterprise. With the financial support of Highlander, he was able to buy the abandoned Mt. Zion Elementary School to provide a home for both the co-op and a meeting center for the Progressive Club’s Citizenship School program. The first citizenship class meeting was held on Johns Island in January 1957 with Bernice Robinson as the primary teacher.
The Highlander’s purpose was, “to help people learn to solve their own problems in their own way.” The school’s approach was, “not a school for teaching reading, writing and arithmetic, but a school for problems.” Contrary to Highlander’s purpose, the citizenship school on Johns Island integrated reading, writing and arithmetic into their core curriculum of shaping an effective citizen. Since the majority of those attending the classes never received a formal education, elementary objectives of learning how to read and write became the first order of business. The schools taught Islanders how to read and write so they could become registered citizens and vote. The popularity of these classes soon spread, those who attended would encourage friends and family to do to same. Septima Clark and Bernice Robinson also began a program at the Club to train new citizenship school teachers; Fannie Lou Hamer and Hosea Williams traveled to Johns Island in order to organize a program in their respective communities in Mississippi and Georgia. While Citizenship classes developed on nearby Wadmalaw Island with one of Jenkins’s daughters, Ethel J. Grimbal, as the primary teacher, and at Edisto Island with Eileen Brewer Woods as the primary teacher, they were also established at St. Helena Island, Daufuskie Island, and the north area of Charleston. The success of the school was evident in the nearly 600 blacks registered to vote in Charleston County by 1960.
Instructors of citizenship classes did not adhere to a strict curriculum, rather they listened to the needs of their students. Attendees wanted to be able to read and write letters to out-of-town relatives, order from catalogues and make money orders. Citizenship classes also provided a forum for asking questions and discussing the problems of the community as well as providing the tools and resources needed to formulate solutions. Citizenship classes made people aware of the political situation in their area, creating a grass-roots basis of new statewide political organizations in South Carolina as well as Georgia, and Mississippi. The Highlander Folk School in Tennessee remained the program’s main funding source and administrative branch of the Citizenship School until the program was taken over by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1961. Many elected black officials and political leaders throughout the south started their careers in the training program of Highlander and the Citizenship School. The school’s successful voter registration program helped lay the groundwork for the major civil rights groups of the 1960s who were pursuing their own voter registration campaigns.
With the Citizenship School’s success in the community becoming a model for other towns throughout the South; groups would travel to Johns Island to see firsthand the programs and services offered by this revolutionary enterprise. The Progressive Club was soon getting enough attendance by local African-Americans and attention by outsiders curious of their program to warrant an expansion. After the adult education and citizenship classes were established,
Jenkins identified other needs that required urgent attention. For instance, there were no recreational facilities on Johns Island. The State of South Carolina refused to build a gymnasium at the white high school because if it did, it also had to build a gymnasium at the black school under the “separate but equal” doctrine enunciated in the infamous 1896 Supreme Court decision of Plessy v. Ferguson.
In 1962, the old Mt. Zion Elementary School was razed for the current, larger building called The Progressive Club Sea Island Center. The new building broke ground in October of 1962 and was completed in March of 1963. The new building retained the uses of the previous building but was now able to provide more services and programs to a larger area; the new center was able to serve not only Johns Island, but also those from nearby James and Wadmalaw Islands. The new structure included a grocery store with fuel pumps in the front of the building; a multi-purpose room that was used as a gymnasium, classroom, community center, day care and commercial kitchen; and four dormitories for over-night visitors. The facilities created a safe environment for whites and blacks to congregate and hold meetings. Due to the amenities of the new facility and the isolated environment of the Club, many workshops were held here and often led or attended by nationally recognized Civil Rights leaders. Martin Luther King, Jr. came to Johns Island twice to attend meetings and workshops at the Progressive Club and stayed at the home of Esau and Janie Jenkins. The workshops offered at the new center represented the development of the Progressive Club’s initial mission of literacy education and voter registration. The program was moving to a wider stage, providing an outlet to political stirrings in black communities in the South, resulting in political sophistication of the African-American community and the formation of statewide political organizations. Residential workshops focusing on voter education, community development and minority leadership, to name a few, were held at the new center. The new center was able to accommodate these multi-day workshops by providing lodging on-site; the rear dormitory rooms could accommodate 25 guests. These residential workshops at the Progressive Club Sea Island Center in the 1960s were a direct outgrowth of the citizenship classes started on the same site in 1957.
At the conclusion of many of the workshops, Jenkins would often transport the participants in one of his buses to Atlantic Beach, South Carolina, located approximately 110 miles from Charleston. Atlantic Beach was an all Black unincorporated town and one of the few public beaches for African-Americans in the segregated South. Jenkins and his wife had purchased a parcel of land in the town in 1946 on which they constructed a restaurant and motel.
During the MUSC Hospital Strike of 1969 in the city of Charleston, The Progressive Club Sea Island Center served as the meeting place for organizing protection of strikers as well as working out solutions to the crisis. Stokley Carmichael attended the meetings at the Club. The Progressive Club Sea Island Center’s simple construction, adaptable interior layout, and use of durable but inexpensive building materials reflected the needs and economic and social position of the African-American community of the Sea Islands during the pivotal 1960s. Organizers desired a building large enough to accommodate not only those from Johns Island, but also those from surrounding communities as well as frequent out-of-town visitors. Its simple layout with large, multi-purpose rooms allowed the club’s organizers to offer numerous services for a variety of age groups. This unassuming building significantly helped to expand the programs developed during the Club’s first years at the Mt. Zion School building, creating a strong foundation of local support for the nationally important Civil Rights Movement. The scarce use of windows provided added security to the building as well as privacy to the work and classes being conducted inside. The work accomplished at The Progressive Club between 1963-1972 created an atmosphere of change and advancement for islanders; more and more African-Americans were learning to read and write, resulting in more registered voters and increased awareness of civil injustices and problems.
Significant activities at the Progressive Club Sea Island Center included: networking with other grass-roots community organizations throughout the South, discussing in a safe setting what things were working and what things were not working in the struggle for human and civil rights, hammering out common strategies, and promoting fellowship with one another. Fellowship and recreational activities were an essential part of the gatherings held at the Progressive Club Sea Island Center. Fellowships and festivals attracted locals as well as noted performers. Christmas Folk Festivals were common gatherings at the Club. According to Bill Saunders, who was in charge of the festivals in 1965, a major folk festival was held there. In attendance were Bernice Johnson Reagon of “Sweet Honey in the Rock”; folksingers Guy and Candy Carawan, authors of the seminal work, Ain’t You Got A Right to the Tree of Life? The People of John’s Island, South Carolina—Their Faces, Their Words and Their Songs; the legendary Moving Star Hall Singers of Johns Island; the Georgia Sea Island Singers; SNCC’s choir; and many, many more. The basketball games in the gymnasium and volleyball games in the side yard volleyball court became vital recreational activities that involved widespread community participation. The community utilized the building as well for church services, weddings, anniversary parties, dances, talent shows, child care, boy scouts club and for church teas.
In a letter dated January 12, 1965 to receive grant funding for the Progressive Club and for the Citizen Committee of Charleston County, Jenkins underscores the importance of the Progressive Club’s role in providing for the children and young adults of the Island community. He states,
“I am a native of John’s island…I have been having monthly meetings with people over the years, trying to obliterate ignorance, to promote health and social, educational and civic welfare, and to combat juvenile delinquency—to secure a more rich and abundant life for ourselves and for posterity…The people with whom I work are some of the poorest ones on God’s earth, I believe. If I were to tell you all the conditions of some of the homes I have visited, I don’t think you would believe that these conditions still exist in America at this day and time…Because of the conditions noted above, we have obligated ourselves and denied ourselves, and borrowed and begged for money to help build a center that our boys and girls and adults could use. It’s the one place on the island where they can play basketball, table tennis, and other games, or skate.”
He goes on to say:
“The following are the things these poor people are requesting:
- Day care for pre-school age children from seven A.M. to six P.M.
- Classes in sewing, knitting and ceramics and other crafts for the 16-21 age group in the evenings from seven to nine.
- Evening classes in basketball, weight lifting, adult remedial reading, music, and workshops on moral and citizenship responsibility, including taking part in registration and voting and learning to use the voting machine.
- The creation of some jobs for children who have left school and after-school jobs for school children.
These requests have come from approximately thirty parents who make from $600.00 to $2,000.00 a year and have from two to eight children in their homes. About fifty of these children are too young to go to school, causing the school-age children to stay out of school two or three days a week to take care of the younger ones when the mother and father are out working to support the children and the homes. This condition causes many of our children to drop out of school. Absence from classes and poverty are the reasons. The children become too old and too large for the low grades, and younger children tease them about this and they become ashamed and quit school… Our kitchen, plumbing and sleeping quarters at the Progressive Club Center have been inspected by the Board of Health and approved. At the present we have enough beds to put 38 children in for their mid-day rest, and also a place large enough to feed them. These facts are known by the many hundreds of people who have benefited from our services in one way or another.”
The Progressive Club’s grocery store was operated profitably by the organization until 1975. Thereafter, a group of Island residents came together and leased the grocery store for a period of time. The structure was severely damaged by Hurricane Hugo in 1989. Since the building was not insured, the organization was not able to repair the substantial damages nor was it successful in obtaining funds from FEMA to make repairs.
Esau Jenkins led a life of wanting more and better for himself, his family and his community. He recognized the inequalities in his life and those of fellow African-Americans and came to institute programs to overcome those hardships and injustices. Born July 3, 1910 on Johns Island, Esau left Legareville Elementary School in the fourth grade to help his father, a farmer. Jenkins then went on to work on a boat, returned to farming and grew cotton, bought a truck and began truck farming. He was able to succeed in his truck farming business by adapting to the market; he took classes in Greek in order to sell his products to the predominately Greek-speaking vegetable-store owners. As his truck-farming business grew, he began investing in other business ventures, like the J & P motel and café in downtown Charleston and later in 1950, one in Atlantic Beach, SC. His business success afforded him the opportunity to begin to help others. In 1945, he bought a bus to transport island children, including his own, into the city of Charleston to attend the black public high school. He later bought more buses to carry islanders into Charleston for work and school; this transporting turned into a business for Esau, the E. Jenkins Bus Line Tour. During the commute, he used this time to teach riders how to read the part of the Constitution found on voter registrations. Jenkins then went on to organizing the Progressive Club after a trip to the Highlander Folk School. Jenkins learned methods and practices of establishing and operating citizenship schools from Miles Horton and the Highlander Folk School’s United Nation Workshop. Jenkins’ visit to the Highlander School in 1953 enabled him to duplicate the process locally; upon his return to Johns Island he established the lowcountry’s first citizenship school on Johns Island. In 1957, the first classes were held at the Progressive Club’s first building, the old Mt. Zion Elementary School.
Jenkins led and organized a drive for a black public high school to be located on Johns Island; in 1953 the Haut Gap High School opened on the island for blacks. Though he was never given credit for getting the school, his efforts were well known throughout the community. Black teens no longer had to travel to Charleston to attend the all-black Burke High School downtown. This was a major accomplishment of Jenkins and The Progressive Club; Johns Island received a consolidated high school for blacks before nearby James Island and Adams Run.
Esau became involved in local politics when he ran for the Trustee of the Charleston County School Board in 1956; his loss by 100 votes roused many blacks to register to vote for the first time. He later went on the serve on the school board in 1969, thirteen years after his unsuccessful run. During the 1960s, Esau continued his missions of voter education, health care, and improving the social and economic conditions of African-Americans. He conducted voter registration drives and served as President of the Citizens Committee of Charleston, which advocated for increased social services to blacks, creation of a voter information office in Charleston, and promoting school integration. He founded the Community Organization Credit Union in 1966 to loan money at low interest rates to blacks. He served on the board of Highlander Folk School, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the South Carolina Conference on Human Relations and as a steering committee member of the Charleston chapter of the NAACP. He later expanded his concerns for those of migrant families, which flooded his island community in the late 1950s and early 1960s when the majority of blacks had left island employment for better opportunities in the city. His concern resulted in the creation of Rural Missions, a social services organization that provided daycare and health programs for migrant families. Rural Missions later became the Sea Island Comprehensive Health Center with a nursing home and low-income housing. Esau Jenkins’ dedication improved and advanced the lives of numerous minorities in the local community.