Esau Jenkins (July 3, 1910 - October 30, 1972) was a South Carolina Afro-American Human Rights leader, businessman, and community organizer. He was the founder and moving spirit of many organizations and institutions which helped improved the political, educational, housing, health and economic conditions of his fellows.
Jenkins grew up during the times of segregation, when educational opportunities were not available to him - but he knew the importance of education and was determined that his children and those of others would not be denied. In the 1940s, Esau and his wife Janie used their money from farming and selling produce to purchase several buses. These buses were used to transport their own children and others on the Sea Islands to school in Charleston and thus further their education. In 1951, he was instrumental in the establishment of Haut Gap High School on Johns Island, so all children on the island would have the educational opportunity to better themselves. Today, Haut Gap is an advance studies magnet middle school.
Jenkins’ buses also transported workers to jobs in the Charleston area. During the bus rides, Jenkins and his wife would teach their adult passengers the information needed to pass the literacy exam, so they could become registered voters. Jenkins realized that he wanted to educate and reach more people, so he started the Citizenship School on the island's Progressive Club (listed in 2007 on the National Register of Historic Places ). The Progressive Club was a co-op started in 1948 by Jenkins and other families on Johns Island. Notable individuals participated in workshops including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and many others. The co-op housed a community grocery store, gas station, day care, classroom space and allowed residents to trade goods and services to help each other in times of need. The school was so effective that it served as the model for other citizenship schools established throughout the South to teach adult education, basic literacy and political education classes and workshops, resulting in thousands of citizens becoming registered voters.
Jenkins created the Citizens Committee of Charleston and founded the C.O. Federal Credit Union in 1966. This credit union helped to further the economic advancement of the community. Residents were able to secure low-interest loans to purchase homes, businesses, vehicles and even send their children to college.
Jenkins was also one of the founders of the Rural Mission. This initiative provided services for migrant and seasonal workers on the island.
Before his death in 1972, Jenkins chartered the Sea Island Comprehensive Health Care Corporation. Which provides low-income housing, a nursing home and a comprehensive health care center for the Sea Island residents.
Jenkins and his wife owned and operated a fruit and vegetable stand, a fleet of buses, a motel and restaurant in Charleston, SC and also in Atlantic Beach, SC.
The story of Esau Jenkins and the Progressive Club will be included in the permanent exhibit titled, “Defining Freedom, Defending Freedom: The era of segregation” in the new Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. Mr. Jenkins was known for his iconic Volkswagen van he personally used for his work in the community and throughout the South. Two panels of his VW van, with his motto: “Love is Progress, Hate is Expensive” will be on display.
The Smithsonian, the Jenkins family, and the Preservation Society of Charleston hosted the van artifacts send off to the Smithsonian on June 1, 2014. This event was included in the Piccolo Spoleto Festival and several hundred attended. All local Charleston news outlets covered the story via interviews and articles about the event.
Jenkins died on October 30, 1972. His funeral was officiated by the Rev. Ralph Abernathy. After his death many institutions, programs, a bridge and a street were named for him.