On June 1, 2014, at the site of the future International African American Museum on Concord Street, the community gathered to honor an influential Civil Rights figure from Johns Island, SC as a portion of Esau Jenkins’ iconic VW van was sent to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History & Culture. The Mt. Zion Spiritual singers sang in the style of the Moving Star Hall Singers and members of the Charleston community and Jenkins family shared reflections on his life and work.
Esau Jenkins (1910-1972) has at times been referred to as the Martin Luther King of Charleston. He and his wife Janie bought a few VW vans to bus sea island blacks to and from their homes on Johns Island to their downtown jobs and schools. During the trip, they would teach them the part of the Constitution they needed to know in order to register to vote. Along with Septima Clark, Jenkins started the first Citizenship school, meant to teach illiterate blacks to read so that they could pass a required literacy test to vote. These schools played a critical role in building the base for the Civil Rights Movement.
James Island native Eugene Frazier said “the event brought back memories, of 1950’s and 1960’s riding in his VW Bus, with the Bellenger Bros, to Atlantic Beach, and providing transportation for the students from Johns, and James Isl. to attend Burke High School in Chas, before S. C. provided School Buses for African-Americans”
On May 31, a terrible storm rolled through the Charleston area, consequently coaxing a cold front, which cooled the weather to 75 degrees. It was terribly windy, but the sun shone and the community poured out in great quantities. We had 185 chairs on site and there were several rows standing. We estimate at least 300 people were present for the ceremony. All three news stations covered the story and Robert Behre of the Post and Courier ran an article covering the event a week prior. Mr. Bill Saunders told us “you will never get this many people together for an event this meaningful ever again. Today was a good day.”
In the words of Jenkins youngest daughter: The late Mahatma Gandhi is reported to have said about his fight to gain India’s independence, “First they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then they fight you, and then you win.” I think we all won today—the Sea Island community, the Charleston community, the State of South Carolina, and our nation.
Click to view the ceremony on Youtube
The event was hosted by the Jenkins family, The Thomas Mayhem Pinckney Alliance (of the Preservation Society of Charleston,) and Fielding Funeral Homes.
The alliance includes Dr. Millicent E. Brown, Alphonso Brown, Julia-Ellen Craft Davis, Corie Hipp, Ray Huff, Minerva King, Ramona LaRoche, Dr. Ade Ofunniyin, Leila Potts-Campbell, and Tim Condo.
By Corie Hipp Erdman