The whoosh of passing vehicles momentarily drowned out the soft, deep voice of Abraham "Bill" Jenkins as he leaned against a pile of concrete blocks.

He had cautiously navigated the uneven earth and building remnants to stand inside the once-vital community center for African-Americans on Johns Island. 

At 90, he could still rattle off its history. 

The Progressive Club, where Jenkins stood, is part of a historic stretch of Johns Island, tucked away along a winding two-lane road surrounded by far-reaching oak trees and farmland.

Efforts are underway to preserve the club, though they're moving much more slowly than the nearby traffic. 

Even in its dilapidated state, the Progressive Club still serves as a civil rights symbol, as evidenced last week by the audience Jenkins had: Joy Bivins, chief curator of the International African American Museum; former Charleston Mayor Joe Riley, who brought along students from The Citadel; and other local residents and leaders. 

"Places like the Progressive Club, the space of Johns Island itself, become a laboratory for really uncovering history," Bivins said. 

Just up River Road are the historic Wesley United Methodist Church, the Fields family's farmland and the Moving Star Hall praise house, where the earliest version of the Progressive Club began. 

Abraham's father, Esau Jenkins, was the first president of the Progressive Club, which started after Sammy Grant, an African-American resident of the island, was shot for kicking at a dog to defend himself. In 1948, Esau Jenkins and Joe Williams, both black Johns Island residents, organized the Progressive Club, which began meeting at the praise house every third Sunday of the month. 

“They’re all interconnected. Although they all started at the Moving Star Hall they also all came out of Wesley United Methodist Church," said Abe Jenkins Jr., Abraham's son. "Because that’s where all the leadership really was.”

Initially, club members paid 25 cents in monthly dues, agreed to become a registered voter, and had to try to learn to read and write, if they were illiterate, Esau Jenkins told The News and Courier in a 1968 interview.

The Progressive Club's members began pooling money for the legal case against the white man who shot Grant before expanding to help pay bail for blacks. In 1963, the Progressive Club moved to the site of the now-damaged building.

At its height, the Progressive Club Sea Island Center, as it was known, served residents of Johns Island but also attracted people from other nearby islands. Segregation and geography had for years isolated local residents, fostering a rich Gullah culture on the largest of the sea islands in Charleston County. 

The Progressive Club was a community center. It had a store and gasoline pumps. Its gymnasium, which was the only recreational center in the area, hosted beauty pageants and basketball games. And because blacks on Johns Island were without a high school until the 1951, it served as an education center.

Jenkins, in the 1968 interview, said he become a civil rights activist when a white farmer took young black children out of school to send them to the fields to pick beans and cut cabbage. "I couldn't do anything about it, but I felt that those children's education was being hampered."

Jenkins, who only made it to the fourth grade, recognized the importance of education. 

"I tried to tell the Negro people who were living on these plantations, on these farms, that their children will never be free to compete in this competitive age unless they get an education," Jenkins said in the interview. 

Classes taught by Esau Jenkins, Septima Clark and Bernice Robinson helped local African-Americans learn to read and write so they could vote and become better-informed citizens. Word of the citizenship classes spread the Progressive Club's prestige and attracted leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the Rev. Ralph Abernathy and Stokely Carmichael. 

Esau Jenkins also founded a local credit union to help blacks get loans. And he bought buses to take John Island residents on their commute to Charleston. It wasn't until 1926 that a bridge connected Johns and James islands. During those rides, Jenkins shared copies of the South Carolina Constitution and voting laws.  

“Esau Jenkins was a quiet man, but the force of his leadership and what was done here radiated beyond this region,” said Riley, standing in front of the old building. 

Many of the Progressive Club's programs ended with Jenkins' death in 1972. But it remained a community center until 1989, when Hurricane Hugo damaged its roof, leading to its eventual crumbled state.

Recent efforts to rebuild the club have for years been in the works, but progress is slow. 

Abe Jenkins said an issue related to power lines that held up restoration of the Progressive Club has been resolved. A new trail across the street from the club, which in 2007 was listed on the National Register of Historic Places, could lead to more visitors to the area. And creating a direct link with the planned International African American Museum can give the site continued relevance and support for rebuilding it, he said. 

But increased attention to Johns Island also creates an added urgency about preserving its local history. 

The cars that drowned out Abraham Jenkins' voice are more frequent now. And the open land where generations of black families have farmed and lived could be eyed for development. 

Walking through the back of the Progressive Club's remaining structure, the elder Jenkins showed the six rooms where civil rights leaders would stay in secret when visiting. Other than part of the cement structure, not much else of the rooms remain except for rusty nails and a few screen windows.   

“You can see we’ve come a long way from back then to now," Jenkins said.  

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Reach Stephen Hobbs at 843-937-5428. Follow him on Twitter @bystephenhobbs.

Stephen Hobbs is a member of the Watchdog and Public Service team. He can be reached at (843) 937-5428.

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