Bernice Robinson

The implementation of citizenship schools on the sea islands of South Carolina can be attributed to the efforts of Charleston native Bernice Robinson. Citizenship education was an integral segment of the philosophy of Highlander Folk School which was established in Monteagle, Tennessee in 1932. The school did not use curriculum, grades or diplomas. It emphasized problem solving. Bernice Robinson was trained in citizenship education at Highlander Folk School. She was the ideal person to lead the mobilization of citizenship education on South Carolina’s sea islands.

The need for this teaching concept had been stressed by community leader Esau Jenkins. He was greatly dedicated to the educational, social, and political progress of the sea islands population. Bernice Robinson had worked with Jenkins in the Charleston community since 1948. Mrs. Robinson had great success. She developed a technique for teaching that utilized the indigenous language skills and lifestyles of the people. Under her leadership, hundreds of adults learned to read and write. The curriculum was based on the needs expressed by the people who came to the first citizenship classes on Johns Island in January, 1957. Her progress on the sea islands of Wadmalaw, Edisto and Johns so impressed Maxwell Hahn, executive president and chairman of the board of the Marshall Fields Foundation, that he funded the program through Highlander Folk School from 1959-1970.

According to Mrs. Robinson, “Esau (Jenkins) dreamed the idea. He talked about it often enough to get the wheels in motion, but it was left to me to make it a reality.” Her citizenship schools had extraordinary success. The concept was adopted in both the North and South. It became the base for the political and economic growth of African-Americans. In 1964 Bernice Robinson affiliated with the citizenship education program of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). The SCLC workshops helped transform the educational, economic, and political status of thousands of African-Americans in the South.

“I was given the responsibility of bringing a dream/idea to life. And, I am as proud as a parent watching a child blossom into full adulthood and taking their rightful place in the world,” said Mrs. Robinson.