Photo by Robert Yellin
Courtesy College of Charleston
Avery Research Center

The Conservancy will present an exhibit of African American life on Johns Island from 1870 to 1960 through photographs from the book  Ain’t You Got a Right to the Tree of Life.   The exhibit is at the Johns Island Library for the month of April, 2015, as part of the Library’s month long Gullah celebration.   The library is located at 3531 Maybank Highway on John’s Island.


With the coming of freedom at the end of the Civil War, enslaved Africans finally became “African Americans”.   Yet the lack of economic opportunity and Jim Crow meant that the day to day lives of African American citizens on Johns Island were little changed.   Importantly though, blacks were finally allowed to have their own family life, get an education, practice religion as they choose and continue to develop the African based Gullah culture.   African Americans were also supposed to be allowed to vote but burdensome laws and intimidation virtually eliminated this right.   Not until World War and the beginning of the Civil Rights era did daily life begin to change significantly.   But the decades had not been wasted;   Johns Islanders built a strong family tradition, got some of the basic education that was offered and found inspiration in their spiritual lives and Gullah heritage.

Photo by Robert Yellin
Courtesy College of Charleston Avery Research Center

Esau Jenkins, born and raised on Johns Island, was one of those who saw the opportunity for a better life and began to work tirelessly at the grass roots level to help his family and neighbors achieve the promises of freedom.   His efforts and those of other son Johns Island were aimed at the twin goals of getting the full education that all were entitled to and allowing African Americans to exercise their right to vote.   In 1955, with the encouragement of Septima Clark, Mr. Jenkins began to attend the Highlander Folk Center and to work with others to develop the organizations, methods and programs that would become key to the Civil Rights movement.   He met many activists at the Center including Dr. Martin Luther King.   He also met a young couple, Guy and Candie Carawan; fellow activists, folklorists and musicians.     In 1963 the Carawans moved to Johns Island, lived in the community and built relationships with their new neighbors.   In 1966 they published Ain’t You Got a Right to the Tree of Lifedocumenting African American life on Johns Island with quotes, stories   and essays by Johns Islanders; music from the Moving Star Hall praise house; and photographs by Robert Yellin.

The original photographs by Robert Yellin were donated to the collection of the College of Charleston’s Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture.  Kind permission has been granted to use copies of some of these photos for our exhibit.   Thank you to Ms Georgette Mayo, Archivist, from the Center for assistance in organizing and reproducing these photos.

A companion recording, Been in the Storm So Long: A Collection of Spirituals, Folk Tales and Children’s Games from Johns Island, SC, was also produced by Smithsonian Folkways.   Some selections of these songs from the Moving Star Hall Singers will be available for listening as part of the exhibit.   Examples of local Gullah and Gullah inspired art work will also be on display along with some recommended readings in Gullah literature and history.