History is filled with interesting stories that have been largely left to the fading memories of those who have experienced them, known only to scholars, or even worse lost to the graveyards. One of the most inspiring tales of this kind is that of a local man born in poverty with a fourth grade education that made a major impact on his times named Esau Jenkins.
Mr. Jenkins was born on Johns Island, SC on July 3, 1910 to Peter and Eva Jenkins at a time when his birthplace was looked down on as a rural haven of poverty and illiteracy. Most of the area’s black residents worked as farmers for others and received little education.
Jenkins recalled in Guy Carawan’s book Ain’t You Got A Right to the Tree of Life in 1966 that “We had around 50 children with one teacher in a one room school.” As was the case with many of his peers, Mr. Jenkins was forced to leave school to help his father with farming and carpentry.
As a child, Mr. Jenkins observed a number of incidents that encouraged him to fight for social changes. He mentioned some incidents to the Charleston News and Courier of July 28, 1968 of white farmers forcing black students to leave school for planting season, black men being shot over minor offenses, and of his father warning him about openly contradicting local whites by telling him, “the white folks don’t like you doing that.” He married his wife Janie in the early 1930s, and fell under the tutelage of a local minister named Rev. G.C. Brown who improved Mr. Jenkins’ skills in reading, writing, history, and grammar. Jenkins continued his studies through adult night schools in Charleston and even learned the Greek language to communicate with Greek merchants on that city’s Market Street. He recalled that the Greek merchants would greet him with the words, “Here comes the Colored Greek.”
Mr. Jenkins used his education to improve his community. He taught local blacks how to read and write in order to register to vote and set up the Progressive Club. He would also drive Johns Islanders to Charleston to register them to vote. At a commemoration service on Johns Island’s Wesley United Methodist Church on October 31, 2010, Bernard Fielding recalled that he, his brother Herbert, and Jenkins, complained to a Sen. Legare that the registrar, who was the senator’s cousin, would take two-hour breaks whenever Mr. Jenkins would bring his busloads to register. Jenkins warned them to “Stop playing games,” and that ended these delays.
In the 1950s, Mr. Jenkins began attending Civil Rights workshops at the Highlander School in Monteagle, Tennessee. He was reunited with his former teacher Mrs. Septima Clark at this school and became friendly with Dr. Martin Luther King, who frequently visited and spoke with Mr. Jenkins in the Lowcountry. Mr. Jenkins’s granddaughter Jakki Jefferson recalled, “He called Dr. King ‘my friend,’ and he often referred to people as such. I never saw Dr. King in a big light because Papa (Mr. Jenkins) would always say, ‘nobody is better, nobody is less.’” Mr. Jenkins also helped to establish Haut Gap High School (later a middle school) which was the first post-elementary school for blacks on the Sea Islands. In 1956, he unsuccessfully ran for the Johns Island school board and Johns Island leader William “Bill” Saunders recalled, “He lost, but after that they would only appoint members to the school board until 1972.”
His Civil Rights efforts and association with Dr. King caused many blacks and whites to be wary of Mr. Jenkins. Rev. Brown also noted that many local blacks “thought Esau was going too fast.” Some urban blacks also tended to scorn Jenkins for his rural speech and background. Jakki Jefferson remembered, “My mother and could not find a teaching position in Charleston County because she was Esau Jenkins’s daughter. She had to go to Frogmore in Beaufort County to teach and I grew up with my grandparents.” By the mid 1960s, Jenkins established the C and O Credit Union and the J and P Café in Charleston as well as a motel in Atlantic Beach, SC.
Bill Saunders noted at the commemoration ceremony, “Esau was a businessman. A lot of people in the civil rights movement would lose their jobs, but Esau made his own living so no one could fire him.”
Through the 1960s, Jenkins helped to lead or participate in most of the major struggles and incidents of the Civil Rights movement in the Lowcountry and would join the board of directors of Dr. King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference. However, Mrs. Jefferson noted, “If it wasn’t for Mama Janie (Mrs. Jenkins), he wouldn’t have been able to do much. She was the backbone in minding the businesses and family while he was away.”
Esau Jenkins died on October 30, 1972 from injuries received in an automobile accident near Knoxville, Tennessee. 1,000 people attended a memorial service a few days later officiated by Dr. King’s assistant, Rev, Ralph Abernathy. At a commemoration service held 38 years after his death, many of his descendants wore t-shirts bearing his likeness with his favorite slogan, “Love is progress-hate is expensive.”