S.C. CU, civil rights leader receives Smithsonian honor

June 26, 2014

CHARLESTON, S.C. (6/27/14)--In 1966, Esau Jenkins founded the Community Organization FCU, capping a lifetime of work fighting for civil rights in the South by establishing cooperative organizations that served African-Americans.

Esau Jenkins, center, was an iconic civil rights figure who leveraged the cooperative business model to improve the lives of African-Americans in the low country of South Carolina. A section of Jenkins' VW bus will be displayed at the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture. (Carolinas Credit Union League photo)

For his work, a piece of Jenkins' Volkswagen bus, which features his personal motto: "Love is progress, hate is expensive, help our scholarship fund," will be displayed at the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture once it opens in 2016.

Friends and family gathered at a special event in Charleston earlier this month to celebrate the artifact's send-off to Washington, D.C.

Jenkins (1910-1972) formed the credit union, which has since been renamed CO FCU, Charleston, with $1.7 million in assets, in order to offer low-interest loans to African-Americans.

But founding a credit union only scratches the surface of the work Jenkins accomplished in his life.

Jenkins established his first cooperative in 1948: an outfit called the Progressive Club that functioned as a food co-op for African-Americans on John's Island.

With the food co-op in place, Jenkins and his colleagues built on the operation's success by starting a Citizenship School within the organization. The school taught African-Americans how to qualify to vote in South Carolina.

The school was so effective, according to the National Cooperative Business Association, civil rghts leaders from throughout the nation traveled to see it first hand in order to launch similar schools of their own.

Some of the iconic visitors to the school included Martin Luther King Jr., John Lewis, Stokely Carmichael and Andrew Young.

The museum where Jenkins' bus will be featured is currently under construction. Located on the Washington Mall, the museum will teach visitors about the history of African-Americans in the United States and how the African-American experience has impacted American life.