By Elaine Jenkins
Merriam–Webster defines the word serendipity as “the faculty or phenomenon finding valuable or agreeable things not sought for.” That definition was made concrete for me in about 2010 when I attended a peace conference held at the United Methodist Retreat Center at Lake Junaluska, North Carolina. During one of the sessions I was seated next to a white woman who shared my surname. When I told her that I was born and reared on John‘s Island and still claimed it as my place of residence she shared with me that her paternal ancestors owned of a rice plantation on the same island before the Civil War. We probably had the same thought—my ancestors were likely enslaved on that rice plantation owned by her paternal ancestors.
Sara Jenkins and I remained in communication over the years. I learned that she had worked as an Art Historian, editor, published author and the owner of a small publishing company. She is a Zen student of more than 30 years and that she has worked on the issue of racial reconciliation for many years. In 2014 when the back panels of my parent’s 1966 Volkswagen microbus were selected to become one of the permanent exhibits for the new Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture I invited Sara to Charleston to attend the send-off, which was hosted by the city. She accepted and came with a friend.
Jenkins wrote about our initial encounter in an article that is one of many included in the book Slavery’s Descendants: Shared Legacies of Race & Reconciliation. She decided she wanted to establish a scholarship at Claflin University for college bound men and women of five of the Sea Islands of South Carolina in memory of my parents. She requested my help to achieve her goal and the Esau and Janie B. Jenkins Endowed Memorial Scholarship Fund came into being.
In her letter to several of her close friends inviting them to contribute to the scholarship fund, Jenkins quoted Dr. Tressie McMillan Cottom when she said “Nobody needs reparations more than white people. It will end up freeing white people more than it will benefit any individual black person.” Jenkins went on to say that “personal reparations…address the moral need of white people. The possibility of small-scale individual contributions, it seems to me, deserves wider attention.”
The family of Janie and Esau is honored and humbled by this singular radical act of generosity, which will provide financial support for young black sea islanders. To contribute to the Esau and Janie B. Jenkins Endowed Memorial Scholarship Fund click here or mail your check (made payable to Claflin University with the name of the scholarship in the memo line) to the attention of Mrs. Michelle Manning Henry, Claflin University, 400 Magnolia Street, Orangeburg, SC, 29115.