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Historic Civil Rights Marker Unveiled on Johns Island
9/11/2013 12:29:23 PM

A Civil Rights Marker commemorating the Progressive Club on Johns Island was unveiled at a ceremony Sunday afternoon.

By Ramona LaRoche

Local islanders and community members throughout Charleston, and surrounding areas attended the commemoration of Civil Rights marker unveiling at the site of the historical Progressive Club on Johns Island on Sunday afternoon.

Although the historical commemoration was well attended by supporters near and afar, notably Mr. Emory Campbell of Hilton Head, Queen Quet of St. Helena Island, there was the absence of local significant entities such as College of Charleston representatives from the African American Studies and History departments. Friends of the Charleston Association for the Study and Life of African Americans (ASALH), and the Thomas Mayhem Pickney Alliance weren present in full force.

The Preservation Society of Charleston launched a community voting effort to determine which five of ten historic sites should be designated as significant places during the Charleston Civil Rights movement last year. Sunday’s event marked the fourth of five such designations.

Aurora Harris, Community Outreach Manager for the Society has served as key organizer for all of the events. She welcomed attendants, and introduced Evan Thompson, Executive Director of the Preservation Society. Remarks were made by Bill Saunders, Executive Director of COBRA (Committee on Better Racial Assurance), Abraham Jenkins, the eldest son, and Jakki Jefferson, granddaughter of Esau Jenkins.

Saunders shared that much information is unknown. Although the Progressive Club was formed in 1948, the movement began back in 1935, as Esau Jenkins was just emerging.

He stated that Jenkins “was on the ground like the Angel Oak”. Reverends G.C. Brown organized four churches on Wadmalaw Island, as did Rev. Brewer at two Presbyterian churches on Johns Island. Jenkins ran for the school board in 1956. Following that effort, Charleston County School District stopped elections until 1970, when the island community members threatened to form their own school board.

Abraham Jenkins, Esau’s eldest son provided the audience with a description of the layout of the four room building known as the Progressive Club. Three rooms served as classrooms, the fourth a dormitory. With evident police brutality, and community racial violence, the dormitory provided a safe place to stay overnight for community meeting attendants after late gatherings.

The building was severely damaged after Hurricane Hugo. W. T. Goodwin of Wesley United Methodist Church became tired of seeing the building in such disrepair. He suggested that an advisory group to support the board in restoration efforts be formed. A non profit status was established, and by 2007 the building was placed on the National Historic Places Registry.

The Fields family donated ten acres to the project. The Greenbelt in turn bought the land; two acres were then designated to the Progressive Club. This property is located across the road from the site.

Jakki Jefferson, granddaughter of Esau Jenkins, provided an excellent gender centered verse on the women of the Progressive Club movement. The women served as “formal community bride leaders - past and present leadership positions not fixed identities..... in order to support ideologies of social movements.

She listed thirteen women. Janie Bell Jenkins (Esau’s wife), board member; Septima Poinsett Clark, NAACP, First Citizenship Education School, Johns Island and Anna Kelly; both urged Esau to attend the Highlander Folk School’s United Nations workshop on Race Relations; Mrs. Clyde of New York who donated the first $1,000.00 to the Club; Sofia Horton, who provided the first site visit to Johns Island from the Highlander School; Bernice Robinson, the first teacher of the Citizenship School; Ethel Jenkins Grimball, first teacher of school at Salem Presbyterian Church on Wadmalaw Island; Eileen Brewer Woods, Citizenship School on Edisto; Fannie Lou Hamer, Citizenship School and Voter Registration certification; Alice Wine, Treasurer, 1 of 13 organizing board; Anna Vastine, a 65 year old scholar; Mary Bell Howe and Mamie Garvin Fields, Methodist Church Women United, worked with migrant and seasonal workers, and Mazie Buncomb, Martha Mack, Mae Wright, and Julia Pinckney, former board members.

Jefferson continued with homage to present day female leaders. Marie Jenkins Jones, Candie Caravan, Mary Twinning, Dr. Myrtle Glascoe Green, Elaine Jenkins, Rev. Robin Dease, Millicent Brown, Pastor Kay Grimball Colleton, Andrea Casey, and Alice Guess.

After Ms. Harris read and unveiled the marker, Ray Huff, Director of Clemson Architecture Center in Charleston provided background on the participation of the architectural students with the Progressive Club project and gave closing remarks. He emphasized his vision of education as a tool of transformation for students. The goal was to expose students to aspects of history and culture as they are asked to design buildings reflective of culture.

The class consensus was rather than restore the original Progressive Club building; it would be understood as a historic ruin; in celebration of history. A larger facility will be housed across the street on two donated acres.

Visitor Comments
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Submitted By: Abe Jenkins, Jr. Submitted: 9/11/2013
Good commentary of the event. Keep up thegood work!

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