By Barney Blakeney
Community Owned Federal Credit Union, located at 117 Spring St. in downtown Charleston, November 1 launched into digital banking. CEO Perrin Middleton said the new digital banking now allows members 24/7 access to their accounts. A new phone app for Android users which soon will be available to Apple users as well is the first implementation of mobile banking by a credit union of a black heritage in South Carolina.
“The COFCU Board of Directors believes small steps like online banking, along with mobile banking, will pay huge dividends for both the credit union and its members,” said COFCU CEO Perrin Middleton. COFCU also established an ATM at its Spring Street location, another benefit to the community and the credit union. The ATM may be another first among African American credit unions in the state, Middleton said. Additional services the credit union provides are savings accounts, loans and it conducts credit workshops for various organizations in the community.
The Community Owned Federal Credit Union (COFCU) was founded by Esau Jenkins (July 3, 1910 – October 30, 1972) and a small group of visionaries in 1966. It was founded to provide low-income residents of Johns Island and the Charleston community with broader access to financial products and services denied to them by larger financial institutions.
Since then the COFCU membership has grown to include the entire Charleston region. Currently, it is one of only two designated low-income credit unions in South Carolina. This designation is designed to help the credit union serve members recognized as having challenges to accessing mainstream financial products and services– which was Jenkins’ goal. Since its inception, the credit union has made over $10,000,000.00 available to its members in the form of loans for home repairs, automobile purchases, and members’ personal use and projects.
For more than five decades, the COFCU has been in the community providing a helping hand and Jenkins has been recognized for his vision. Jenkins was a human rights leader, businessman, and community organizer. He was the founder and moving spirit of many organizations and institutions which helped to improve the political, educational, housing, health and economic conditions of Blacks in the Charleston area.
Jenkins grew up during the times of racial segregation when educational opportunities were not available to him, but he knew its importance and was determined that it would not be denied to his children or to those of others. In the 1940s, Jenkins and his wife Janie used their money from farming and selling produce to purchase several buses. The buses were used to transport their own children and others on the Sea Islands to schools in Charleston. In 1951 Jenkins was instrumental in the establishment of Haut Gap High School on Johns Island. 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 taught their adult passengers the information needed to pass the literacy exam so they could become registered voters. Jenkins wanted to reach more people so he started the Citizenship School at Johns Island’s Progressive Club. The Progressive Club was a co-op started in 1948 by Jenkins and other families on Johns Island. Notable individuals, including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., participated in workshops at the Progressive Club.
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 Progressive Club’s Citizenship School, where the late Septima P. Clark was a teacher, was so effective 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 also created the Citizens Committee of Charleston and founded the C.O. Federal Credit Union. The credit union helped to further economic advancement in the community. Residents were able to secure low-interest loans to purchase homes, businesses, vehicles and to send their children to college.
The National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. has recognized Jenkins’ innovation and has established a section dedicated to him. Charleston’s International African American Museum will follow suit and dedicate a section to Jenkins as well.