Preserving a piece of civil rights history: The Jenkins’ Bus

The 1966 Volkswagen Type 2 formerly used by civil rights pioneers Esau and Janie B. Jenkins. Photo: Historic Vehicle Association.

Most vehicles that sit outside unattended for four decades aren’t destined to ever move again. But this 1966 Volkswagen Type 2 Deluxe Station Wagon isn’t just any Bus – it’s a piece of civil-rights history, and a memory of a family that spent decades working to make the country a better place.

Esau and Janie B. Jenkins spent several decades fighting to improve the lives of their neighbors on Johns Island, S.C.  From the 1940s through the early 1970s, the Jenkins family built a network of businesses and schools for underserved African American residents that would eventually become a template for the entire civil rights movement across the South. They painted their motto on the tailgate of their Bus: “Love Is Progress; Hate Is Expensive.”

“Long years ago, I asked myself, ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’ And the answer I got was, ‘You are,’” Jenkins, who died in 1972, said in an oral history of the area. “I decided to do anything I can to help people in order to help myself.”

Growing up under the racial Jim Crow laws of the era, Esau Jenkins became convinced at an early age that he needed to tackle the discrimination that touched every part of his community’s life. At the start of the 1940s, only a few thousand African American residents across all of South Carolina were allowed to vote, due to racial literacy exams. On Johns Island, most children quit school after eighth grade, as there was no nearby high school, and families could not afford transportation for their children to Charleston.

Jenkins had found his first business in hauling produce to Charleston, and had started taking his own children to schools there with him, a daily trip that began at 4 a.m. In 1945, Jenkins bought his first full-size bus to begin bringing other children from around the community to Charleston; soon after, he began hauling adults who needed work as well.

The 1966 Volkswagen Type 2 formerly used by civil rights pioneers Esau and Janie B. Jenkins. Photo: Historic Vehicle Association.

At the time, South Carolina’s voting literacy test required an applicant to recite and explain a part of the state constitution; only white judges could decide who passed. Jenkins began using the bus trips to teach his passengers what they needed to know to pass the tests; over the years, those rides led to hundreds of new voters from Johns Island.

In 1948, Esau and Janie helped found The Progressive Club on Johns Island, a co-op that provided programs such as legal and financial assistance, child and adult education, and community workshops. The building held a grocery store, gas station and community center. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, the two worked tirelessly to help offset the economic disadvantages of Jim Crow, opening several businesses, such as a credit union to provide loans for other small businesses.

In the 1950s, the couple partnered with other Johns Island residents to open the first citizenship school – a more focused form of the talks Esau used to give on his bus rides, helping residents overcome illiteracy and learn their civil rights. The methods they developed were later adopted by civil rights leaders who launched similar schools across the South in the 1960s.

Shortly thereafter, the 1966 Volkswagen Type 2 Bus Esau and Janie had last used was parked on Johns Island, next to the original Progressive Club. Four decades of salt air and the occasional hurricane would eat at the Bus and wear down the “Citizens Committee” lettering they had painted on.

Last year, relatives of Esau and Janie Jenkins asked the Historic Vehicle Association for help in preserving a memory of their work. The HVA documents and helps preserve cars with important historical and cultural meaning, and oversees the National Historic Vehicle Register in partnership with the U.S. Department of the Interior, Heritage Documentation Programs and The Library of Congress.

The 1966 Volkswagen Type 2 formerly used by civil rights pioneers Esau and Janie B. Jenkins. It took five hours to move the bus from its resting place in South Carolina. Photo: Historic Vehicle Association.

In March of this year, the HVA and the NB Center for American Automotive Heritage teams spent five hours delicately moving the Bus from its resting place, carefully reinforcing key points to help keep the entire frame from collapsing. From there, the Bus was documented, stabilized with a new substructure and had initial preservation work done by experts at BR Howard.

Last week, the Bus went on display on the National Mall; it’s now undergoing additional preservation with help from Volkswagen of America. Diane Parker, vice president of the HVA, says the goal isn’t to restore the Bus, but to preserve its condition as much as possible to reflect the history it’s been a part of.

“We want to make sure future generations can experience this Bus and the work that the Jenkins family did for civil rights,” she said.

The 1966 Volkswagen Type 2 formerly used by civil rights pioneers Esau and Janie B. Jenkins. Photo: Historic Vehicle Association.