February is Black History Month and a time to mark the important role Johns Island played during the Civil Rights era. Important figures such as Septima Clark and Esau Jenkins lived and centered their activities on the island, with their legacy carried forward by others today.
Septima Poinsette Clark (1891 - 1987), born and raised in Charleston during the Reconstruction era, is still honored as the "Grandmother" of the Civil Rights movement and came to Johns Island in 1916 when, as an African-American, she was barred from teaching in white schools in the city. She not only taught children at the old Promised Land school on what is now Betsy Kerrison Parkway, but taught still-illiterate adults to read and write, sometimes using the Sears Roebuck catalog as a teaching tool. By the late 1920's, she had joined the Charleston chapter of the NAACP, which led to her dismissal by the all-white Charleston County school board. Undaunted, Clark undertook a variety of NAACP initiatives throughout the Southeast to improve literacy rates for Blacks. By the late 1940's, Clark had become a major figure in the establishment of Citizenship Schools teaching reading, writing and basic business skills to Black children and adults.
One such school was here on Johns Island, founded with the help of Johns Island native Esau Jenkins (1910 - 1972) as The Progressive Club on River Road. Jenkins and fellow Johns Island native Joe Williams had raised money for the legal defense of a Black neighbor who, in 1948, had been shot while defending himself against an attack by a white farmer's dog. When a judge dismissed the case that had been filed against the farmer, Jenkins and Williams raised enough money for a successful appeal of the ruling, and the eventual conviction of the farmer for aggravated assault.
Soon, Jenkins and Williams organized the Progressive Club to help build a permanent legal defense fund, as well as to serve as a food cooperative and social center for Johns Island Blacks. In 1954, Jenkins attended a workshop at the socially progressive Highlander Folk Center in Tennessee, where he met Clark and others involved with the Citizenship School movement, and was inspired to adapt The Progressive Club as one such school teaching the literacy skills necessary to vote.
The Club's site is now a National Historic Landmark, although all that remains of the original building are its crumbling cinderblock walls, the only survivors of the uninsured structure after Hurricane Hugo in 1989. But the Progressive Club as an organization is still active on Johns Island, carrying on the work of Clark and Jenkins for social justice.