Volkswagen Microbus with Civil Rights Background Heads to Washington

Sebastian Blanco
Photo credit: Volkswagen

From Car and Driver

  • This well-worn Volkswagen Microbus was once used by civil rights advocates Esau and Janie B. Jenkins in South Carolina to transport people while educating them about their right to vote.
  • Rescued from the back yard of the couple's descendants, it's going on display on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., from September 20 to 27.
  • The 1966 VW Type 2 Transporter is now listed on the National Historic Vehicle Register for its role in an important era of U.S. history.

Sometimes, a bus is more than a bus. Like the rusting 1966 Volkswagen Type 2 Transporter with fading green paint you see above. It may not look like much today, but VW is helping preserve this particular van so it can be displayed on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., alongside another classic later this month.

The Historic Vehicle Association (HVA) is organizing the display, which takes place from September 20 to 27, as part of HVA's fifth annual Cars at the Capital exhibition.

Two cars make up this year's exhibit. The other is a 1969 Chevrolet Corvette Stingray that belonged to Apollo 12 astronaut Alan Bean (the Stingray is on display now through September 19). So, what is a rust bucket doing on the Mall where a Stingray would be?

Photo credit: Volkswagen

The reason this particular bus is going to Washington is because it played a role in the civil rights movement. It was used by activists Esau and Janie B. Jenkins, who drove people and ideas throughout South Carolina. Esau started carrying people around in a different bus in 1945, first getting children to and from school and taking workers to their jobs. On the drive, he would educate his riders about the law and how to register to vote. The Jenkinses co-founded the Progressive Club in 1948 and kept working in the 1950s and 1960s on community and civil rights issues. This vehicle was an important part of their work. It once had "Love Is Progress; Hate Is Expensive" painted on the back.

Photo credit: National Historic Vehicle Register

After Esau Jenkins died in 1972, the VW was parked in the couple's back yard, and it didn't move again until this year. Parts of the vehicle were removed, though, as in 2014, when the family donated the back hatch and engine cover to the nascent Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. The Historic Vehicle Association's website tells a fascinating story of how the group's members stabilized and preserved the VW Microbus in preparation for its time on display in Washington. The time-lapse video below gives a glimpse at the amount of effort it took.

After spending a week on the Mall, the Jenkins Microbus will be preserved in its present state by professional conservators with help from the HVA and VW. The mission of the National Historic Vehicle Register is to "create a permanent archive of significant historic automobiles within the Library of Congress," according to the Historic Vehicle Association, which administers it. There are 25 other vehicles on the list, which started in 2014 with a a 1964 Shelby Cobra Daytona coupe prototype. Among others on the register are a 1962 Willys Jeep Universal Model CJ-6 that belonged to Ronald Reagan, the 1968 Ford Mustang Bullitt fastback, and the first minivan, a 1984 Plymouth Voyager. This will be the first vehicle added to the register because of a civil rights background.

In the years since Esau and Janie B. Jenkins did their good works around South Carolina, Volkswagen's Microbuses have become highly collectible. A pristine example, a 1956 Volkswagen Deluxe "23 Window" Microbus, sold at auction last month for $112,000. This one is in nowhere near sellable condition, but those who understand its history would agree it's beyond price.

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