Charleston civil rights hero and transportation advocate remembered 

Take a Seat

click to enlarge The Doors of the VW Bus owned by Esau Jenkins have been exhibited at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture

William S. Pretzer

The Doors of the VW Bus owned by Esau Jenkins have been exhibited at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture

Working alongside his friends and neighbors, one "unknown man" from the Charleston-area sea islands went on to have an outsized impact on our local community.

"The civil rights movement was started in a little black Methodist church in a little town called Johns Island by an unknown man named Esau Jenkins." Or at least that's what Elaine Jenkins, Esau's daughter, says she was told by Andrew Young, an icon of the struggle who worked alongside Martin Luther King Jr. and served as mayor of Atlanta and U.N. Ambassador.

As families grew up in segregated communities like those on Johns Island under Jim Crow, local connections were even more important as friends and neighbors leaned on each other because they had to.

Fed up with disparate treatment of minority citizens, groups like Esau Jenkins' Progressive Club sprung up to help. Without banks that would lend,  the C.O. Federal Credit Union downtown was created thanks to Jenkins' efforts.

Without a ride to school or work, Jenkins stepped in and coordinated transportation from rural Johns Island. This month, local transit advocates are remembering Jenkins' legacy of helping others.

"Daddy had many buses," says Abraham Jenkins, Esau's son. "He would take people to the fertilizer plant, a bus to the market, and a bus to school."

click to enlarge Esau Jenkins - COLLIN GONZE
  • Collin Gonze
  • Esau Jenkins

During the rides, Esau and his wife Janie would teach those what they needed to know to pass government literacy exams, one of the hurdles put in place to keep African American residents from voting.

Over time, the bus routes began to branch out. He drove passengers across the state and beyond in his iconic Volkswagen bus on occasion to participate in King's civil rights rallies.

"The VW bus took us to Atlanta," Abraham explains. "That's when he took some of the Sunday school kids, not only from our church, but from everywhere in the community, when King started."

Of course, not everyone could leave to go on out-of-state trips with Esau and King. But thanks to the inspiration from Jenkins and other local activists, there were plenty of meetings to attend, and many who relied on transportation from people like Esau to get there.

"Mr. Jenkins would always pick up children along the way and take us to church," recalls Gerald Mackey, a retired educator and a passenger on Esau's bus line. When he was in high school, he would take him and others to youth rallies around town. "He was alway working with the young people and getting them involved."

One of the misconceptions surrounding the bus line, according to Elaine, is why and how it was started. While Esau had a passion for civil rights and activism, the bus line also became a way of keeping members of his community at work and afloat.

"The whole point is that there was no public transportation on Johns Island back then," Elaine explains. "My father had buses. There were others who had buses to transport people off the island to get to work or school. It was out of necessity."

"He did what was necessary to stay alive," echoes Abraham.

More people may have their own way of getting around these days, but public transportation on Johns Island is still limited.

"More people drive now, but there are still many people who don't have transportation to get to Charleston from Johns Island," Mackey says. "CARTA needs to work with the people and our schedule to accommodate the citizens, not just some arbitrary schedule they put together. That comes from talking with people, having meetings and gatherings and finding out what works for people."

Still today, many are involved in the fight for equal access to transit service across the Charleston area.

"Locally, the struggle for transit equity began over 80 years before Rosa Parks refused to surrender her seat when Mary Bowers and others fought to desegregate Charleston's first public transit system, horse drawn streetcars, in 1867," writes Best Friends of Lowcountry Transit's founder William Hamilton.

Hamilton's group participated in a Transit Equity Day earlier this month, a day commemorating transit heroes past and present on Rosa Parks' birthday, Feb. 4.

"We picked this day to address two issues — the importance of public transit to address climate issues, and how public transit is essential to many people to meet their basic needs," says Michael Leon Guerrero, executive director of the Labor Network for Sustainability, which organized the national Transit Equity Day. "What better way to highlight both of these than to pick a day like Rosa Parks' birthday."

Transit Equity Day began in 2015 in partnership with the Amalgamated Transit Union, the nation's largest transportation worker group, as a way to tackle climate issues from a different angle. Transportation is the top contributor to gas emissions, Guerrero says, and public transit can reduce that, especially if systems are electrified.

"What's really exciting is this partnership of community organizations," Guerrero says. "Every year we've done this now, with really very little resources to do it, it's grown. There's a real need and a real hunger for this kind of connection, to be a part of something bigger, and to learn from each other."

Many of the transit heroes remembered locally, like Esau and his family, were more than transit advocates, but community voices.

"They are social workers," Guerrero says. "They do so much to help people and are so critical to the community. Every time I talk to one of the workers on these vehicles, I appreciate them even more, because they tell all these stories about what they go through."

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