Voices of Charleston – The Jenkins Family

preservation-admin , January 5, 2022

By Courtney Theis, Acting Director of Advancement

Since our inception in 1920, the PSC has relied upon public engagement on issues that matter most for Charleston. The organization’s grassroots principles and community-driven activism still form the foundation of our work today. The Voices of Charleston series tells the stories of residents, business owners, and entrepreneurs along one of the nation’s oldest urban corridors. The range of backgrounds and perspectives reflects the diversity of King Street from the Battery to North Central.

The Jenkins family has a proud legacy in the 20th-century history of Charleston. Esau and Janie B. Jenkins, both natives of Johns Island, were dedicated civil rights activists and community leaders. They advocated for a public high school on Johns Island for African American children, transported Island children and residents to school and work in Charleston during segregation, and demanded equal rights and the privileges of full citizenship for African Americans. Today, the back panels of the Jenkinses’ 1966 Volkswagen Type 2 T1 Deluxe Microbus, on which are printed the words, “Love is Progress, Hate is Expensive,” are installed in the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. The Jenkinses were instrumental in the formation of the Progressive Club of Johns Island, an important community gathering space and home to a citizenship school. These schools were established throughout the South to teach adult literacy and promote voter education and registration.

It was a pleasure and a privilege to speak with the Jenkinses’ son, Abraham Bill Jenkins, Sr. and their granddaughter, Jacqueline “Jakki” R. Grimball Jefferson, both of whom are active in the community and have collaborated with the Preservation Society to tell the story of the Progressive Club and the family’s significant contributions in the Lowcountry. Mr. Jenkins detailed his parents’ history with the Progressive Club, and discussed his involvement in the erection of a PSC historic marker on the site to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights movement in 2013.

The Jenkins family’s contributions extend well beyond the boundaries of Johns Island; family members have a long-standing presence in the Upper King Street area as business owners and entrepreneurs. In 1971, Esau and Janie B. Jenkins purchased several historic mixed-use buildings situated on the southwest corner of King Street and Cannon Street, which remain in the family today. The first-floor storefronts of 569-571 King Street have housed a number of businesses over the past 50 years, including a corner convenience store, two shoe repair shops, a vegetable stand, a smoothie shop, a sandwich shop, and a record store called “Hot Spot Record Shop,” owned by the Jenkins family. Two apartments are situated above the storefronts. As Ms. Jefferson recalled, “I was a tenant in one of the apartments from 1982 to 1987 with my husband and two daughters. I allowed my daughters to ride their bicycles down along King Street from Cannon to Calhoun, in an area that was accepting of African Americans. For us, that section of King Street was our safety net.”

Currently a resident of the Westside neighborhood, she has observed a shift in modern-day King Street as more African American residents and legacy businesses are displaced on the peninsula. “Today, you see very few minorities on King Street, and there are more bars than I have ever seen before. My daughter recently came home two weeks ago and she told me, ‘Mommy, I don’t like Charleston anymore; it’s changed too much.’” In Ms. Jefferson’s view, what was once a quiet, commercial and residential district that fostered a vibrant African-American community, is now a raucous and unsafe area that no longer feels welcoming. In addition, Ms. Jefferson believes Charleston still struggles with ongoing discrimination and deep-rooted problems. She lamented that there is a lack of affordable housing, and that continued tourism growth has not benefited long-term residents: “Charleston caters to people who are only here temporarily.”

To mark 50 years of continuous ownership of the 569-571 King Street properties, the PSC is working with the Jenkins family to erect a historic marker that tells the story of these buildings, with specific focus on how they relate to the legacy of African American-owned businesses in the Cannonborough/Elliottborough neighborhood. Ms. Jefferson and Mr. Jenkins praise organizations like the PSC that are helping to educate and tell the African American story through our historic marker program and other preservation initiatives. In the coming months, the Jenkins family will rehabilitate these buildings, which they hope will be a significant boon for the block and a positive step toward preserving the historic African American built environment in Charleston. With a nod to her grandfather, Ms. Jefferson shared one of Esau Jenkins’ favorite quotations, “We all have an obligation to be a bridge of education, a bridge of communication, and a bridge of friendship between the races.” The Jenkins family supports ongoing partnerships with organizations like the PSC, as we strive to seek out and illuminate the lesser-known parts of Charleston’s history as one way to build those bridges.

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