This article first appeared in the Post and Courier's Do You Know Your Lowcountry column, Feb. 5, 2024. It has been updated with new information from the Jenkins family.
Today you pretty much need to know right where to look or else you’ll speed past the ruins of the Progressive Club without seeing it alongside River Road on Johns Island. Yet the stories recalled by the remaining walls and piles of concrete block are important to remember as we celebrate Black History Month.
The Progressive Club was more than a place. It was an initiative that impacted the Civil Rights movement not only here in Charleston, but also throughout the South as other centers like it were created.
The club was established by Esau Jenkins and about 40 of his neighbors in an abandoned schoolhouse as a co-op grocery and dry goods store in 1948, a time when segregation was the status quo. Here poor, rural Black Johns Islanders could buy everything from produce to gas to farm supplies.
More importantly, club members could trade goods or services with each other when they had little or no cash.
Having left school in the fourth grade to support his family, Jenkins understood the importance of education in furthering racial justice and improving one’s lot in life. Indeed, the club was founded in the wake of an incident where a Black man was shot because he kicked a White man’s dog that was threatening him. The token effort at prosecuting the shooter was not successful.
With the encouragement of a Methodist minister, The Rev. Giles C. Brown, Jenkins completed his education as an adult at night school. He later attended the Highlander Folk Center in Tennessee, an educational program that focused on civil rights leadership. Among its alumni were Septima P. Clark, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, and future U.S. Senator from Georgia John Lewis. Here he explored ways of helping members of his Johns Island community learn to read, write and understand their civil rights to vote.
Returning home, Jenkins was unwilling to accept the poverty and despair that defined the lives of Black children on Johns Island. By his side every step of the way, though usually in the background, was his wife Janie.
Jenkins ensured that Johns Island’s children could get an education by driving them downtown in his personal buses to attend Charleston’s only Black public high school. He also drove adults to and from jobs in the city, jobs outside the farming community that gave John Islanders the chance to earn more and improve their lot in life. During these commutes, Jenkins would teach his riders about the importance of voting to ensure their civil rights. He gave them copies of the state’s voting laws, explaining their rights and what the laws meant.
Still, according to the state’s 1895 constitution, one had to be able to read and write to vote. Thus, beginning in 1957, Septima Clark and other educators created within the Progressive Club one of the South’s first Citizenship Schools, modeled after and sponsored by the Highlander Folk Center, to teach adults how to read and write and how to exercise their voting rights.
News of its success spread, and more Citizenship Schools opened around the South.
With the establishment of the school, the club needed a larger facility. No one, however, was willing to rent them space, as racial tensions escalated in the late 1950s and early ‘60s.
Instead, the Progressive Club bought land on River Road in 1962 and built a multi-purpose structure made of basic, durable concrete blocks. Jenkins’ son-in-law, Ezekiel N. Jones, oversaw the construction. In addition to the store, the building’s simple design included large classrooms, a recreational gym for kids when they were not in school or working, and overnight accommodations for guests.
The Progressive Club continued to operate until 1975, by which time schools were integrated. As the club’s membership dropped, the building began to deteriorate before it was destroyed by Hurricane Hugo in 1989. It was not insured.
In 2007, the site was added to the National Register of Historic Places, which erected a highway marker along River Road, even as encroaching woods began reclaiming its ruins. Discussions about rebuilding the club continue. Frederick Fields, a life-long Johns Island resident, entrepreneur and member of the Progressive Club's Board of Directors, sold 10.48 acres of land to the Progressive Club below cost through the Charleston County Greenbelt Program for the construction of a new building and nature trail. The nature trail has been completed, and board members are working to raise funds for the new structure.
“The accomplishments of that simple Citizenship School, humbly created in a co-op shop, became one of the greatest stories of the civil rights movement,” wrote David Thompson, author of The Role of Cooperatives in the Civil Rights Movement. You might want to take a moment to think about that the next time you’re traveling down River Road.