"Love Is Progress, Hate is Expensive"
These are the words of Esau Jenkins painted on the backside of his yellow-green 1960’s Volkswagen van. It was a van-bus that he drove around his home of Johns Island, South Carolina. He drove his van-word-bus back and forth from Johns Island to Charleston, S.C., and to other towns and cities for many years at the turn of the 20th century. Anybody coming up behind him in his rearview could read what he believed. Esau Jenkins must have been whispering out to the world, “Do you see what I see?”
Esau Jenkins was born on Johns Island at a time when the majority of Black folk living there were forced to make whatever living they could solely off the blessings of the land itself. It was backbreaking, thankless, necessary work. Black children didn’t have the luxury to stay in school like other children. Black children were forced by circumstance to help out their families. They stepped out of the classrooms and into the fields to join the rest of their aunts, uncles, and cousins. It was a time when Black women were routinely maligned and assaulted just for being Black women. A time when Black men were routinely shot for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. It was a time of all out assault against black skin and Black people. 1930 is 1950 is 1970 is 1990 is 2016 when it comes to the fear of and the shooting down of Black people in America. Esau Jenkins made a decision to intimately and selflessly insert himself into the particular moment he was born into. He knew there was something he could do. No one could take that belief from him.
In the 1950’s, Esau Jenkins and his wife, Janie B. Jenkins, sold vegetables from their fields and used the money to purchase a VW van. There were thousands of neighbors that needed help getting from one place to another. Esau Jenkins knew he needed to get people wherever they needed to be in order to get his community on the road to a better life. He saw a need and filled it and did not wait for permission.
Mr. Jenkins took it upon himself to teach his neighbors how to read and write because he wanted them to register and vote. Mr. Jenkins knew voting was at the very heart of dismantling power in America. Mr. Jenkins and Mrs. Jenkins set up what became known as the Progressive Club. He regularly drove his neighbors from Johns Island to Charleston so that they could register as rightful citizens. He helped found Haut Gap School on John’s Island. He founded a Credit Union in 1966 that still exists, the C.O. (Community Owned) Federal Credit Union of Charleston, S.C. He began a Co-op that had a community grocery store where Johns Island residents could trade their goods and also keep a tab and buy what they needed to survive. He started a gas station where his neighbors could buy gas. He and Mrs. Jenkins opened a classroom for the children who worked in the fields. He and Mrs. Jenkins operated a fruit stand and eventually sold enough tomatoes and okra and cabbage to have a small fleet of word-van-buses that picked up and moved Black people that nobody else would pick up. Mr. Jenkins knew that mobility and movement out of the fields was essential. He knew that his people needed to look towards more than row after row of cotton and corn. Mr. and Mrs. Jenkins also operated a hotel where family and friends could rest and sleep for the night without keeping one eye open for trouble that was never far away. Early on Mr. and Mrs. Jenkins were living the 7 Kwanzaa principles long before Kwanzaa, a holiday invented for Black people, was established in 1966. Unity. Self-determination. Collective Work and Responsibility. Cooperative Economics. Purpose. Creativity. Faith. They were doing it before it was the thing to do.
The organizing never stopped for Esau and Janie B. Jenkins. In the 1970’s they helped charter the Sea Island Health Comprehensive Health Care Initiative, which provided low-income housing, a nursing home, and comprehensive health care for the mostly ignored and forgotten Black folk of John’s Island. Mr. Jenkins and Mrs. Jenkins were determined that their kind, people who had been stolen from home and forced across the sea, would not be denied basic access to what all human beings wanted and deserved access to.
In the 1960’s Esau Jenkins attended Civil Rights workshops at the historically crucial Highlander School in Monteagle, Tennessee. The great Septima Clark of Charleston, SC, was there, with her mind on freedom, and so was a young Dr. M.L. King Jr., of Atlanta. These lovers of freedom sat and broke bread and words with each other and strategized a future free from hate and injustice and great economic disregard.
Esau Jenkins died on October 30, 1972, from injuries sustained in an automobile accident. But when a person lives his life so far outside of his own physical body, so unselfishly large and so radically focused on reforming the society surrounding him, when that person has moved against all odds, with all his faith and all the mightiness love can radiate and replicate, then that life does not end when his heart stops.
“It takes a pretty large person to love. Any small person can hate,” Esau Jenkins was known to say.
The backside panel of the Jenkins word-bus – that you can clearly see in this old black & white photograph – the panel right above the old VW engine -- where “Love is Progress. Hate is Expensive” was painted for all the world to see, where anybody coming up behind him in his rear view could read, was cut away two years ago by curators from the Smithsonian museum, kissed with both hands by the Jenkins family and sent up north to be readied for the great unveiling. The curators believed the small but historic metal insignia was a piece of critical American history and culture that needed to be remembered.
The remembering time has come. The sweet unflinching words that a determined fearless man painted on the back and side of his fleet of used cars – words that he dedicated his life to – will now be officially viewed by people who have been waiting 400 years to have their story told and touched by the luminous lights of the same Republic that never fully recognized their priceless defining citizenry.
The great story of Esau Jenkins and Janie B. Jenkins and the Progressive Club of Johns Island, South Carolina and the yellow-green 1960’s Volkswagen bus, will be included in the permanent exhibit at the new Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture that opens this weekend, in Washington, DC, on September 24th, 2016.
But before all of the official pomp and circumstance begins up in Washington, the ancestors, who have been waiting for 24 plus generations, will have their say. This Thursday, September 22, 2016, there will be an Esau Jenkins and Janie B. Jenkins Send-Off at the Charleston, South Carolina Maritime Center (the future site of the International African American Museum), on the docks of Gadsden’s Wharf where the enslaved Africans first touched American soil and were hurled head and breath first into slavery. After the blessing of the Send Off three generations of the Jenkins family will travel from Charleston, SC, on up to Washington, DC, to participate in and witness the historic grand opening.
I dream every day of a fleet of cars and buses, trains and planes, bicycles and mopeds too, all with “Love is progress, Hate is expensive,” painted on their doors and windows, their side panels, their tires and backsides. I believe a modern day fleet of word-van-buses on the move across every highway in America, headed toward our nation’s capital is needed. Because 1930 is 1950 is 1970 is 1990 is 2016 and our bruised and battered Republic is still in need of lovers of freedom at the wheel.
Do you see what I see?
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