The cinder block remains of a building adorned with its name, “The Progressive Club,” rest on rural Johns Island. What is left of the Progressive Club reflects the efforts of island resident Esau Jenkins, who dedicated his life to improving the station of local African-American islanders through education, voter registration, and by making available opportunities that might otherwise be lost on people living in this isolated environment.
Jenkins formed the club in 1948 with the help of Joe Williams after an island local, Sammy Grant, was shot by a white man for kicking towards his dog while defending himself from an attack by the animal. The case against the dog owner was dismissed by a magistrate judge, and Jenkins and Williams raised money from other islanders to appeal the judge’s decision. Their efforts were successful, and the dog owner was convicted of aggravated assault for shooting Grant. Jenkins and Williams decided to create an organization that would help secure funds and legal help for local African-Americans in the common event of unjust violations. They called their organization the Progressive Club, and members helped people with a variety of problems faced by islanders, such as finding transportation to work in neighboring Charleston. For this purpose, Jenkins secured a bus for commuters as well as island children who needed to get to school.
In 1954 Jenkins attended a workshop at the Highlander Folk Center in Monteagle, Tennessee, and met with Myles Horton, an activist who taught African-American adults citizenship rights. Desegregation workshops also were held at the center. Jenkins was inspired after his initial visit to the center and wished to emulate such a place on Johns Island. He returned from his visit energized with a desire for creating further improvements for blacks on the island. A relationship between Highlander Folk Center and Johns Island was forged, and with help from the Tennessee organization, the Progressive Club grew.
In 1956 the club purchased the vacant Mount Zion Elementary School for its headquarters. The school had served black elementary-aged children, and when the Progressive Club acquired it, the building needed extensive work, including electricity and indoor plumbing. The club was able to restore the building with the financial support of its members and the Highlander Folk Center. The Citizenship School within the Progressive Club – inspired by the Highlander Folk Center – opened in the former school building in 1957. Adult education classes ranging from reading and math to voting were developed by Jenkins and Septima Clark, a Johns Island resident who became a representative of the Highlander Folk Center after losing her job as an elementary school teacher because she was a member of the NAACP. Clark’s niece, Bernice Robinson, was the Citizenship School’s first teacher.
The classes at the Citizenship School proved to be both popular and successful, and other Citizenship Schools developed on the rural islands of Edisto, Wadmalaw, St. Helena, and Dafuskie. A school even opened north of Charleston.
As the club evolved, Jenkins wanted to expand its services; to do so it needed a larger building. In 1962 the club demolished the former school and built in its place the Progressive Club Sea Island Center, completed in 1963. Included in the construction were a gymnasium, a commercial kitchen, a day care center, a fuel pump for agricultural fuel needs, a grocery store that would operate from the front of the building, and four dormitory rooms, each containing two or three beds for visitors attending workshops.
The workshops were popular. The early 1960s represented the height of the Civil Rights Movement, and civil rights leaders came from all over to attend workshops on voting and desegregation, among other things, held at the Progressive Club. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. attended two workshops at the club, and activists such as Dr. Cleveland Sellers also made the trip to Johns Island.
After Jenkins’ death in 1972, many services offered by the club came to a halt, though the grocery store continued to operate until 1975. After that year locals continued to lease the building from the organization and run a grocery store in it until Hurricane Hugo damaged the roof of the building in 1989. The Progressive Club had no insurance on its building, and the club was denied funds by FEMA. Today club members are hoping to restore the building that provided a connection for African-American islanders with the larger community – and their rights within it.
The Progressive Club is listed in the National Register:
The Progressive Club Sea Island Center is significant for its role as a Citizenship School and for its association with events and persons important in the Civil Rights Movement. The Club building is also significant for its association with the development of continued adult education, social history, politics, ethnic heritage, recreation, and commerce for the African American community of the Sea Islands beginning with the building’s construction in 1963 until the death of the Club’s founder Esau Jenkins in 1972. The structure and site served as a vital community center, providing a home for the Progressive Club’s legal and financial assistance program, adult education program, dormitory lodging, and as a community recreational, child care, meeting place and grocery store.
The building is the only remaining structure of the era built to house a “Citizenship School” in South Carolina where adult education classes and workshops enabled African American citizens to register, vote, and become aware of the political processes of their communities. While the first citizenship school class at the Progressive Club site was held in January 1957, the Citizenship Schools became a model for Civil Rights leaders for similar efforts throughout the South during the late 1950s and continued as classes and workshops at the Progressive Club well into the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. The workshops, classes, and folk festivals hosted by the Progressive Club were either attended or facilitated by people who were later catapulted to the national stage in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.