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Jenkins Orphanage Band – Charleston, South Carolina


South Carolina Jenkins Orphanage Jenkins Orphanage Band

Orphanage Band Instrumental in Jenkins' Past and Future


Many Charleston folklorists know the story of the Jenkins Orphanage, founded after the Reverend Daniel Jenkins, a former orphan himself, stumbled across four homeless boys huddled together in a freight car with nobody to care for them. Any serious student of American music knows that the Jenkins Orphanage Band – formed to help support the orphans' home – would become the training ground for dozens of top musicians, deeply influencing the development of jazz. What many South Carolinians don't realize is that the orphanage has remained a functioning haven for neglected Lowcountry youth for over 120 years.


Originally located next to the old jail in downtown Charleston, Jenkins Orphanage began receiving scores of neglected children almost as soon as it opened its doors in 1891. While South Carolina had nine orphanages for white children at the time, Jenkins was the sole refuge for African-Americans in our state. By 1913 its ranks had swollen to 360.

When the Reverend decided to turn a handful of ragtag orphans into a top-notch musical outfit, he didn't do it for love of music – Jenkins himself couldn't even play an instrument. His orphanage needed money, however, and far more than the $1000 stipend the City of Charleston allotted him for clearing its streets of indigent – and often troublesome – youth.

His idea was likely inspired by several factors. For starters, Booker T. Washington (the South's preeminent black educator of the time) had achieved great success using choral performances to garner publicity and donations for the Tuskegee Institute. Teaching the children to play instruments also gave them viable skills, as did their other lessons in such subjects as baking, butchering, farming, and printing. Finally, as Time magazine explained in 1935, "Having on his hands a number of undernourished, rickety and tuberculous youngsters, Jenkins optimistically decided 'My children's lungs would get strong by blowing wind instruments.'"

Jenkins put out a request to Charlestonians for old instruments, wrangled some cast-off uniforms from the Citadel, and found a pair of local musicians – P.M. "Hatsie" Logan and Francis Eugene Mikell – to teach the children to play.

The children learned quickly – training several hours a day in addition to their other tasks and chores. In just two short years, the Jenkins Orphanage Band began touring the US and abroad. At first they played mainly on street corners, literally "passing the hat." However, as their reputation grew, so did their opportunities. In 1905, they were invited to play for President Roosevelt's inauguration, and in 1909 they repeated this honor for President Taft. They occupied their own stage at the St. Louis World's Fair in 1904, and in 1914, they were given free passage to London – plus new uniforms! – to play at the Anglo-American Exposition. Over the years, the band travelled to Austria, England, France, Germany, and Italy. It even performed on Broadway for the entire original run of DuBose Heyward's Porgy and Bess.

To further increase revenues, Jenkins had up to five bands tour each summer and two each winter. By the 1920s, the orphanage had become the place for up-and-coming Charleston musicians to meet and jam. Many non-orphans auditioned for the band, and the better ones were allowed to join. As musician and artist Merton Simpson recalled, "A lot of good musicians came out of that group, people like Cat Anderson ... [and] ... Freddie Green Basie [sic], these are all alumni of Jenkins. Like I said, it was a home for sort of delinquent boys but everybody wanted to go there just because it was such a good place to get involved with music. Charleston was at that time a kind of musical center for jazz."

It was the various Jenkins bands that spread this "Charleston Sound" up and down the Eastern Seaboard. In those early years, when musical innovations were still conveyed through live performances rather than records and airwaves, Charleston's young troubadours weren't just earning their keep – they were contributing directly to the budding American jazz scene.

Though the bands' popularity remained high for many years – young boys from all around the country were now being sent to Jenkins – a significant 1930s development led to orphanage's eventual decline. F.D.R.'s introduction of Social Security payments for dependents meant that single mothers who might otherwise feel forced to abandon their children could now afford to keep them at home, their incomes supplemented by taxpayer dollars.

Band revenues began to fade, and a bank collapse seriously damaged the orphanage's finances. Nonetheless, before his death in 1937, Reverend Jenkins could look back on a lifetime of good works that had literally saved or improved the lives of thousands of children – nearly all of whom went on to live productive, self-sufficient, and often famously successful lives. In fact, Jenkins boasted to Time magazine in 1935 that of the thousands of children who had passed through the orphanage since 1891, fewer than 10 had ever ended up in prison – a fairly remarkable statistic given the dire circumstances into which most of his charges were born.

After Jenkins' death, the orphanage left downtown Charleston and relocated to North Charleston. They built five dormitories – four for boys and one for girls – and an elementary school which became the school for all African-American children in the area. The band trips continued into the 1950s, but eventually ended altogether.

Today, Jenkins Institute is still located along the Ashley River. It cares for about 20 children, all girls between the ages of 11 and 21, with no known behavioral issues. Most come from the Department of Social Services and remain at Jenkins for no more than a year. Because the girls don't stay at Jenkins long, there's little time to teach them music. Labor laws now forbid children from farming or raising livestock – enterprises that once helped make the center self-sufficient.

And so, after all these years, one thing hasn't changed at Jenkins – its need for generous donations. Many local organizations do pitch in: Clemson Extension Services runs a mentoring program teaching the kids how to garden, compost, and cook; SCE&G provides the institute's electricity and gas for free; church and civic groups keep the school looking sharp with annual work days; and volunteers mentor Jenkins' residents in self-esteem, job-interviewing skills, and even yoga.

Still, funds are tight, but it's possible that once again, the Jenkins Band will come to the institute's rescue. Given the orphanage's important role in the development of jazz, institute leaders are discussing plans to develop part of the riverfront property as a family-friendly historical center. Potential projects include building a wayside chapel, gift shop, and picnic area, planting a garden of local Noisette roses, and even growing a hedge labyrinth. Most important would be a small museum devoted to the history of the orphanage, with special attention placed on the band and its famous alumni.

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