Marker, building plans unveiled for Johns Island civil-rights site

The Preservation Society of Charleston unveiled a marker at the site of The Progressive Club on River Road on Johns Island in 2013. The cinder block building was a hub of civil-rights activism in the 1960s. File/Dave Munday/Staff

A civil-rights movement historic site that’s been in ruins since Hurricane Hugo is getting a face-lift.

The Progressive Club on Johns Island was the hub of civil-rights activism in the 1950s and 1960s. The cinder block building on River Road continued as a community center until it was destroyed by Hurricane Hugo in 1989.

The Preservation Society of Charleston unveiled a marker at the site Sunday. Plans are underway to stabilize the old ruins and put up exhibits to tell its story. A new community center is planned across the road.

One of the main goals of The Progressive Club was to teach blacks to read and write so they could pass the literacy test to vote. The marker notes the work of founder Esau Jenkins and educators Septima Clark and Bernice Robinson.

It was a goal that didn’t sit well with many white people back then, according to Abraham Jenkins, Esau Jenkins’ oldest son.

“They called it the communist center,” he said. “It was tough.”

People would often sleep at the center after night meetings, because they were afraid they would be targeted driving home along the rural roads at night, Jenkins said.

Bill Saunders, leader of Committee On Better Racial Assurance, also recalled the struggle.

“There has nothing that has been changed in South Carolina unless somebody was willing to die,” he said. “There has been so much sacrifice that has been made.”

Abraham Jenkins and others connected with The Progressive Club started a nonprofit organization to restore the building after Hugo. Clemson Architecture Center took on the project.

It was eventually decided to leave the ruins as an educational exhibit and build a new community center across the road, where there is more room for parking, according to Ray Huff, the Architecture Center’s director. The center will take the initiative to raise the money both for the restoration and for the new building, he said.

The Progressive Club was put on the National Register of Historic Places in 2007.

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