Businessman, clergyman, community leader. Jenkins was born at Beaufort Bridge in Barnwell District to slave parents. Little is known of his childhood and early life. Those close to him were told that he had been forced off the plantation where he had been born and had moved to Arkansas as a young man. Returning to South Carolina, he met and married Lena James in September 1881. They had eleven children. After his first wife died, he married Eloise C. Harleston, the sister of the artist and civil rights leader Edwin A. Harleston. His second marriage produced one child. Jenkins opened a store in Ladson, Berkeley County, before arriving in Charleston around 1885, where he started a successful lumber business. A minister and orator, he eventually became a pastor of New Tabernacle Fourth Baptist Church in 1892.
As racial lines hardened in South Carolina, black activists addressed the problems of African Americans through religious and secular organizations. The post-Reconstruction period witnessed the rise of black leaders who admonished African Americans to exercise greater race pride, solidarity, self-help, frugality, and to accumulate wealth through business enterprises. The efforts of the Reverend Daniel Jenkins reflected the drive and concerns of many black ministers and professionals. Jenkins, the first dark-complexioned former slave and non-Charlestonian to become a major community leader in the seaport city, criticized Charleston’s traditional black leadership for its elitism and color exclusiveness.
Jenkins’s greatest contribution to Charleston, however, was the founding of the Jenkins Orphanage. While delivering a lumber order, Jenkins came upon four African American children in a train boxcar, hungry, abandoned, and poorly clothed. He took the children home and, on the following Sunday, he received a donation for the orphans from the New Tabernacle congregation. The church also agreed to form a society to address the plight of other destitute or wayward youth. The Orphan Aid Society was granted a state charter on July 21, 1892.
Jenkins devoted the rest of his life to helping children in need. Many different initiatives were incorporated to finance the orphanage, including the creation of the Jenkins Orphanage Band in 1895. The band became wildly popular and world famous for its music and showmanship. Jenkins also established vocational programs to teach trades to children. A donation of one hundred acres in Ladson later made it possible for the orphanage to teach farming and grow its own food. A printing press was purchased on which apprentices learned the business and the orphanage published its own weekly newspaper, the Charleston Messenger.
The antagonism that had once existed between the black elite and Jenkins was gradually reconciled. He effectively cultivated support for his endeavors among the city’s black and white leaders. A building next to the city’s jail housed the orphanage in its early years before it eventually relocated to North Charleston. At the time of Jenkins’s death on July 30, 1937, five thousand children had passed through his orphanage or lived on the farm facilities. In 1985 a portrait of Jenkins was hung in the Charleston City Council chambers, the first such honor bestowed on an African American.
Chilton, John. A Jazz Nursery: The Story of the Jenkins’ Orphanage Bands of Charleston, South Carolina. London: Bloomsbury Book Shop, 1980.
Drago, Edmund L. Initiative, Paternalism, and Race Relations: Charleston’s Avery Normal Institute. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1990.
Jenkins Orphanage Collection. Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture, College of Charleston, Charleston.