Rev. DeMett Jenkins is the granddaughter of businessman, preacher and civil rights activist Esau Jenkins. She works as the Lilly Director of Education and Engagement for Faith-Based Communities for the International African American Museum in Charleston, South Carolina.
“My grandfather was born in 1910. He came out the womb fighting for justice like it was just in his DNA. And he just always found ways to be bold and courageous, especially during the time where he could be killed for that. And here I am, 53 years old, and I’m fighting for the same thing. We’re dealing with the exact same type of stuff that my grandfather had to deal with. It’s still the police brutality, it’s still the prejudice, it’s still the discrimination and it’s still the injustices. So here we are still 30, 40, 50 years later and this is the same exact fight. Not a different fight, the same exact one.”
We talked about how history is represented in society and the founding fathers’ language of moving toward a more perfect union.
“So it’s not even written for me. ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’ No, that wasn’t even written with me in mind. All things need to be changed, all things need to be redone. We just took down John C. Calhoun’s statue, but we still have Calhoun Street. So taking down the statue hasn’t taken away what he represented. If we’re going to make these changes, it has to be gut wrenching changes like names of streets, names of buildings, names of schools. All of those were named after people who discriminated against black people, who owned slaves. I don’t believe in my lifetime I am going to see that, but I hope to empower my nieces and nephews and our kids so that they can continue the same way my grandfather instilled in us, that we’ve got to stand up for what’s right. We need to empower them. And so I pray and hope that things can be readjusted. But our whole history is wrapped around discriminating against people who look different from white people. We’d have to reinvent the world. We have a long way to go.”
We met at the Moving Star Hall, a Praise House on John’s Island, South Carolina. The hall holds memories of faith, community gatherings and family for DeMett. It is a place that offered both strength and shelter when times were hard.
“The elders of this community came there and that was their place of refuge. When life was hard and circumstances were difficult, that praise house will speak so much to you. The music that has come out of there, the storytelling that has been told there is remarkable. The Moving Star Hall was just a place of community that they the African and African-American people gathered to love and support one another. It is one of the oldest praise houses here in the Carolinas. My cousin is now pastoring her small church out of that building, so the legacy continues, the storytelling, the music. It’s our ancestors that really just continue to uplift us as we think about who they were, what they’ve done and what they’ve accomplished.”
Full Interview with Rev. DeMett Jenkins
-How have your ancestors paved a path for you? And what is their legacy?
-Where have you found your own sense of refuge?
-Are there place names in your community that could be reconsidered?
-What might historical monuments say to those who come from a different background than you?
-Do you think changing the names of places and removing monuments heals wounds or erase history?
-What can be done to heal the historical traumas of our nation?
-Are there learned behaviors that you must unlearn to be a better ally?