Oletha Jenkins, educator, carer of all
Dr. DaNine J. Fleming of Summerville absolutely glows when she talks about her paternal grandmother, Oletha Jones Jenkins.
“She was the ultimate grandmother. She cooked, cleaned, baked from scratch, her house was spotless, told you to ‘sit upstraight’ and never had a cross word,” Fleming smiles as she remembers.
“You could always smell fresh baked cookies when you pulled into the driveway!”
The fresh baked cookies that thrilled her grandchildren were but a small part of who Jenkins was, however.
Born in 1918 in the Sand Hill area, she grew up in the Givhans community. Being the daughter of a house maid (what was really an indentured servant, says Fleming) and a preacher, she was determined to continue her education. And she did. She was the first person in the Givhans community to earn a college degree.
Prior to that she attended Alston – the African American School – through the eighth grade and then attended Claflin in Orangeburg. She was the first to earn her master’s as well, which she earned at South Carolina State. Her degrees were in Education.
Jenkins became a teacher.
She started her teaching career in a one-room schoolhouse – The Canaan School in the late 1930s and early ‘40s. She officially taught kindergarten through eighth grade. But she actually taught anyone who could get there, regardless of how old. It was an all-black school but it had white students. They were the poorest of the poor whites and she welcomed them.
Then she became part of what was then the Dorchester School District and continued to teach for more than 30 years. She was an administrator the last 10 years of her career including at the then Givhans School, Canaan School and was Assistant Principal at Knightsville Elementary.
She worked alongside now Superintendent of Schools Joe Pye.
In the early 1980s she finally retired so she could devote herself full time to the care of her mother who resided in a hospital bed in Jenkins’ living room.
But teaching wasn’t her only contribution to her community. She served as Sunday School Superintendent and was a member of the United Methodist Women. She was also a member and Past Matron of Eastern Star.
“In church – Cannan United Methjodist in Givhans – she had every title but pastor,” laughs Fleming. She taught Sunday school, handled the budget and whenever there wasn’t enough money to pay for something, she quietly dipped into her own pocket.
But education was her passion. It was never if you go to college,” recalls Fleming, “it was when.” She was Assistant Principal when Fleming attended school. “I had to call her Mrs. Jenkins!”
“And she opened her home to everyone.”
Flemings says that was hard when she was young because she wanted her grandmother to herself. “But she taught so many people…she was an educator at the core in or out of school, always making sure every child had opportunities.
“I remember one time a boy at Alston was in the band,” she tells, and the band got to go somewhere important and he couldn’t afford to go. “That morning he was home crying and she and my grandfather drove up to the house and handed the uniform he couldn’t afford to buy and told him he was going.”
Jenkins used to do taxes for people, tutored school children and “was the ultimate wife.”
“She and my grandfather had that spark.”
Education, philanthropy, a lover of all are how Flemings describes her grandmother.
“You don’t do people the way they do you, you always do them good,” said Jenkins once when Fleming asked why she nice to someone who was rude to her. And that, says Fleming, is how she lived her life.
She was 86 when she died in 2005. She is buried alongside her husband of 31 years, Lawrence, and her mother at the Sand Hill Cemetery behind the old church.