Jenkins Orphanage was established by Reverend Daniel J. Jenkins, who was born into slavery in 1862. Not much is definitively known about his early life. As a young man he made his living first doing farm work in Arkansas and later working in the lumber trade in Charleston. He married his wife, Lena James, in 1881.
One day he noticed four homeless children living on the street whom he took into his own home. Shortly thereafter, Jenkins, who was a preacher at the New Tabernacle Fourth Baptist Church, told his congregation about the plight of these children. He collected donations that allowed him to establish the Orphan Aid Society, which was granted a charter by the state of South Carolina in July 1892.
Jenkins was given the use of the Old Marine Building and over the first two years the orphanage grew to house 360 boys and girls. By 1896 the occupancy was up to 546 children, cared for by a staff that included eight teachers and two laborers. As the occupancy and the needs of the orphanage grew so did the need to find a consistent source of funding. Jenkins solicited donations of instruments from the community and hired music teachers to teach selected boys to play them.
His first attempts to make money from band performances were not successful–one early performance on the street in London ended in Jenkins’ arrest and threatened to strand the band in England. However, press coverage of these events raised awareness of the Band and the Orphanage. Upon their return to the US they were able to raise funds with performances, in St. Petersburg, Fla. and New York City in particular. By the end of the 1890s the Orphanage was much more financially secure.
By the early 1900s the band was involved in many high profile performances including the 1901 and 1904 World’s Fairs and the presidential inaugurations of Theodore Roosevelt in 1905 and of William Howard Taft in 1909, as well as the 1914 Anglo-American Exposition in London. By 1923, Jenkins had added four additional bands as well as three vocal groups The Suwanee River Company and two Jubilee Concert Companies, the later comprised of girls.
Notable former band members include William “Cat” Anderson, Jabbo Smith, Tom Delaney, Freddie Green, and Speedy Jones. For more information on this topic, A Jazz Nursery: The Story of the Jenkins’ Orphanage Bands by John Chilton is located in the Southern African American Music Collection.