Civil rights activist. Born on July 3, 1910, on Johns Island, Jenkins was the only child of Peter Jenkins and Eva Campbell. He was forced to end his formal education in the fourth grade to help supplement the family’s income. At age seventeen, he married Janie Jones. Of their thirteen children, seven survived, all of whom earned college degrees.
When Jenkins saw the injustices that affected black children on Johns Island, he bused his children and others to public schools in Charleston. In 1945 he purchased a bus to bring children to the city. He later transported adults to their jobs. During the daily commutes, Jenkins stressed to the adults the importance of voting and taught them to recite passages from the state constitution (a requirement to vote in South Carolina during that time).
In 1948 Jenkins founded the Progressive Club to educate Sea Island residents. At the suggestion of Septima Clark, Jenkins attended a workshop at the Highlander Folk School in Monteagle, Tennessee, in August 1954. Later that year, he invited Highlander staff, including founder Myles Horton, to visit Johns Island. Jenkins, Bernice Robinson, and Septima Clark collaborated with Highlander to establish a “Citizenship School” on Johns Island. The school was designed to teach adult African Americans to read so that they could register to vote. The first school was a success and the schools soon spread to the other Sea Islands. The success of the first schools in the Sea Islands led Highlander to create others across the South, where tens of thousands of African Americans learned to read and became registered to vote.
After the creation of the Citizenship Schools, Jenkins continued to work on issues of civil rights and social justice: he organized the Citizens Committee of Charleston in 1959, he helped organize the first Head Start center in Charleston, and he pressed Charleston’s sanitation department and bus system to hire their first black drivers. In addition to his civic work, Jenkins owned a fruit store, the Hot Spot Record Shop, and the J & P Motel & Café.
Shortly before his death, Jenkins was appointed to the state advisory committee for the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. Jenkins died on October 30, 1972, and was buried at Wesley United Methodist Church on Johns Island. In June 2003, Jenkins was inducted into the South Carolina Black Hall of Fame.
Carawan, Guy, and Candie Carawan. Ain’t You Got a Right to the Tree of Life? The People of Johns Island, South Carolina—Their Faces, Their Words, and Their Songs. Rev. ed. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1989.
Horton, Aimee Isgrig. The Highlander Folk School: A History of Its Major Programs, 1932–1961. Brooklyn, N.Y.: Carlson, 1989.
Jenkins, Esau. Papers. Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture, College of Charleston, Charleston.