Modjeska Monteith Simkins

She was named for her aunt Mary and for a Polish actress, Helena Modjeska, but she spent her life fighting for equality in the American South. Born in Columbia, South Carolina on December 5, 1899, Mary Modjeska Monteith Simkins outshown her namesakes during a long and productive life. By the time she died in 1992, Simkins had achieved national recognition as a civil rights leader and political activist who stood up for what she believed and who did not hesitate to challenge the establishment.

The future civil rights leader was the first of eight children of a prosperous builder and a school teacher. The explanation for her activism and her outrage over injustice can be found in her early socialization. Her parents were determined that their children would have every opportunity and that they would grow up in a "safe" environment, so although they were city people, they built a home outside of town on a farm where they could raise their children in a fairly isolated setting. They taught their children to be independent, growing much of their own food and selling the surplus.  The children were raised with a strong work ethic and as the eldest, Modjeska was expected to help her mother look after the younger children while her father traveled and made a living. A devout family with a strong religious tradition, the Monteiths believed it was important to help those who were less fortunate. Modjeska's parents also gave her a sense of racial pride, decorating their home with hard to find pictures of African-American leaders. From her father, she learned to stand up for herself and not to be afraid of anyone. She related in an interview an account of  an incident that occurred early in her life when her family was in Huntsville, Alabama. There had been a lynching. Her father, who she described as "...a fearless man..." later told his family that one of the lynchers came in and showed him the finger of the black victim, "...to intimidate him, I guess..." But Henry Monteith was not to be intimidated. "...he offered to fight them with his trowel and hammer. They didn't bother him anymore..." (Hall, 1976).

From her mother and her aunts she learned that community service was important. Modjeska's mother taught Sunday school at local churches. Modjeska's mother and aunts were active in the women's auxilliary of the Masons, where they helped organize medical care for black tubercular patients. They were also members of the NAACP. Modjeska's mother Rachel had been active in the Niagara movement and had often read to her children from its journal. The Niagara movement was organized by W.E.B. DuBois in 1905, and while it did not have a great political impact by itself, it laid out many of the demands for desegregation and civil rights which were adopted several years later by the NAACP at its founding.

The parents stressed the importance of education. Modjeska's father was the son of a white lawyer, Walter Monteith, and his family's black nursemaid, Mary Dobbins. As a child, he was sent to live and work on a white family's plantation near Columbia. He was treated well, but he did not have the opportunity to go beyond the third grade and trained as a brick-mason. In a 1977 interview, Modjeska recalled that her father deeply regretted his lack of educational opportunity. Apparently Walter Monteith gave Henry's mother money for his education, but she spent it on other things (Aba-Mecha, 1978). Henry was determined that his children would have an education.

Modjeska's mother, the descendent of slaves, was an educated woman and a role model at a time when even most whites did not have a high school education. Rachel Hull and her sisters had attended Howard Free School, the first public secondary school for African-Americans in South Carolina and had become teachers. Rachel had taught school before Modjeska was born, but was able to afford to stay at home while her children were small. Modjeska learned to read at home before she was old enough to go to school. Her mother made sure that Modjeska and her siblings had a realistic picture of the world outside. She read Bible stories and fairy tales to the children as well as newspaper stories, including both good and bad news.

Educational opportunities for African-Americans were very limited in the early 1900s, so Modjeska attended the "practice school" at Benedict College from elementary school through her own college years. A practice school was a college that provided hands-on training for teachers. Many white northerners had come South to teach at Benedict, and Modjeska later recalled that she received an excellent grounding there in the humanities. Modjeska was already so well-prepared for school that she began her formal education as a second grader.

After graduating from college in 1921, Modjeska taught for a year at Benedict College where she had the opportunity to share one of her loves, medieval history, with her students. In 1922 she was employed at Booker T. Washington High School as a teacher. Although she loved math, there were no openings in that field so she taught for a year in the elementary education department. Here, as a young woman, she began to show the willingness to challenge authority and to stand up for her beliefs that would characterize her entire life. She refused to teach South Carolina history because she had no respect for the text, entitled Some History of South Carolina. The next year a position in mathematics became available. She subsequently taught math until her marriage in 1929 to businessman Andrew Whitfield Simkins. Modjeska soon was forced to leave her position, because the school system refused to employ married women. Modjeska once commented that the school system was probably glad to see her go, because she never hesitated to speak up at faculty meetings or make her views known (Hall, 1976).

Fortunately for the future of the civil rights movement, Modjeska Simkins had what was certainly an unusual marriage for that day. Somewhat older than his wife, Andrew Simkins was in the real estate business. A prominent member of the African-American community, he  had taught wheelwrighting at South Carolina State and had sold life insurance in the past. He was also a good carpenter who laid new floors in their home, and who had been married and widowed twice before he met Modjeska. On the surface he would seem to be a traditional man, but he was supportive of her decision to have a career even as their family grew. He even used his connections to recommend her for the job she assumed with the S.C. Tuberculosis Association in 1931. Over the years, they had three children of their own in addition to caring for the five children of his previous marriages, who initially lived with relatives rather than with the couple. A relative who had cared for some of the children moved in and continued to care for them. They hired household help to look after their home. The energetic Mrs. Simkins was not content with the traditional role of wife and mother that was the norm for those women of the day who could afford not to work outside the home. She helped Andrew in his business before going back to paid employment. In an interview, Mrs. Simkins once commented: "I never ironed a dress shirt for my husband in my life" (Hall, 1976). That was the housekeeper's job. Andrew favored change and stood by his wife but  he was not an activist himself. He did not object to the travels which took her away from home, but he was a social man who loved to be around people. Modjeska recounted that she often came home from her trips to find company in the house. He "felt indebted" to the many people who helped her on the road - in those days, there were no hotels in the South that would provide rooms for black people. He did not forget their friends (Hall, 1976).

Modjeska's skills were never needed more than during the 1930s. The Depression was a difficult period for people throughout the United States. But it was especially hard for South Carolina's African-American population, who saw the businesses where they worked close and competition for jobs increase. As whites lost jobs, they moved into positions that had traditionally been held by blacks. In the first nine months of 1930 alone, jobs for South Carolina's African-Americans dropped by nearly 35% (Lofton, "The Columbia Black Community..."). Federal jobs provided through the New Deal helped, but in most places in South Carolina whites received preference. Although the WPA, a federal relief agency, did not discriminate in terms of salary, the better jobs in all the relief programs almost always went to whites. In 1935, Modjeska Simkins and other black leaders attended a meeting called by WPA officials concerning prospective jobs. Learning that the WPA officials planned to offer blacks only low-skilled manual labor positions, Modjeska and another leader, Dr. Robert Mance, demanded better jobs for African-Americans. The result was that the WPA hired black teachers for the schools and black professionals for a state history project and an anti-tuberculosis project in Columbia. These reforms were unique.

The 1930s was also a time when equal rights for African-Americans came onto the national agenda. Congress began to discuss passing an anti-lynching bill in 1935. In South Carolina, Modjeska Simkins and other African-American leaders responded with the formation of a pressure group, the State Negro Citizens Committee. Modjeska Simkins was secretary of the organization and Dr. Mance was president. The organization lobbied for the bill, contacting President and Mrs. Roosevelt, the vice president, and both of South Carolina's senators, who opposed the bill. The bill failed, as did another introduced two years later, but the debate helped to energize black leaders, who had rarely challenged any actions of the white establishment in South Carolina. Black college students began to organize to protest lynchings by the late 1930s, and black leaders organized the Columbia Civic Welfare League, which was protesting police brutality and a variety of discriminatory practises. Modjeska served as secretary for the organization.

During the same period when she became a political activist, Modjeska Simkins resumed her paid employment. Modjeska assumed the position of Director of Negro Work at the SC Tuberculosis Association in 1931, a job she held for the next eleven years. It required a great deal of fundraising and opened her eyes to the extreme poverty and lack of political power of most of South Carolina's African-Americans. This was a period when most South Carolina African-Americans earned their living farming, generally as tenant farmers.  Black men in the state earned only about 58% of what white men made, and black women earned only 40% of what white women earned. The death rate for blacks was much higher than that for whites. Typically both urban and rural blacks lived in poorly constructed homes without running water or indoor bathrooms. Black neighborhoods lacked sewers and paved streets (Hemmingway, 1976). Modjeska traveled around the state at a time when most of the poor knew little of good health practises, supervising clinics and educating people about immunizations, maternity and child care and sanitation. She also published a newsletter and worked with black teachers and black physicians. She taught health education courses in the summer at S.C. State College aimed at teachers, midwives, and ministers. In the summer of 1937, the Association sent her to Michigan for advanced training. During these same years she became heavily involved in volunteer work with the NAACP.

Modjeska's involvement with the NAACP began in her teens when she accompanied her mother and her aunts to meetings of the Columbia branch. With only three local chapters at the beginning of the 1930s, the organization rarely challenged the status quo, but that began to change in the mid-1930s. In 1939 she became involved in the organization of a state branch of the NAACP. At the urging of Levi Byrd, a member from Cheraw, the local chapters, which had grown to eight,  decided to join together. She was already a member of the board of the Columbia chapter, the largest in the state, and became one of only two women to serve on the state board. The first president and secretary did not live in Columbia. It soon became apparent that the organization needed local people in these positions. James M. Hinton, a minister and independent insurance agent, was asked to serve as president. He and Modjeska would work as a team. In 1941 she was elected state secretary when Mattie Robinson, a key figure in the founding of the state organization, asked her to assume that post. She was known to be a good speaker and she also served as a member of the Speakers' Bureau. In 1941, Modjeska also began her career as a journalist, writing for a black newspaper, The Lighthouse and Informer, published by John McCray. This publication presented the issues and views of the state NAACP. In the following years she worked on civil rights issues with Osceola McKaine, who became a close friend and an employee of her husband as well as associate editor.  In 1942 she took on the responsibility for the NAACP's publicity committee as well, sending out publicity notices and reports of NAACP meetings to local newspapers. She helped to organize other local chapters of the NAACP and worked on civil rights litigation. Often she was the only woman or one of only a few women in a leadership position in the organization. Her years with the SC Tuberculosis Association had given her organizational experience. In assessing her contributions, historian Charles W. Joyner writes: "The importance of Mrs. Simkins in the history of the South Carolina NAACP - and in the pursuit of equal justice in South Carolina - would be difficult to overstate" (Joyner, 1981).

However, her political activism did not sit well with the white leaders of the SC Tuberculosis Association. When she refused to drop her association with the NAACP, the Tuberculosis Association decided to cut the funds to employ her, and they parted company in 1942. She continued her work as a volunteer for the NAACP until 1955. Fortunately, her husband made a good living, and losing her paid employment was not an economic hardship.

One early NAACP project involved teacher salaries. Black teachers generally were paid a lower salary than white teachers. The NAACP had to file separate lawsuits in each school district. Many teachers were afraid to participate in the suits. Modjeska was heavily involved in the NAACP-sponsored lawsuits that won equal salaries for black teachers.  In 1943 she became secretary of the Teachers' Defense Fund, a committee established to raise money for the lawsuit. She helped to pressure the Palmetto State Teachers' Association, the organization of black teachers, into providing financial support. She worked closely with the Columbia teachers. She organized meetings, wrote letters, and wrote articles that were published in black newspapers. In 1944 black teachers in Charleston won their lawsuit and the following year, black teachers in Columbia were successful. After the NAACP won the second lawsuit, school districts around the state began to equalize salaries. The NAACP had won a victory, but the battle was far from over.

The alarmed white establishment began to impose economic reprisals. State employees who became involved with NAACP litigation risked losing their jobs. Many teachers were afraid to become involved with anything that smacked of civil rights. They did not join or provide support for the NAACP as a result. The organization decided to form the South Carolina Citizens' Committee as a  front for the NAACP. Modjeska wrote the organization's charter. The same people held the same offices as in the NAACP, and contributions to the SCCC would end up in the coffers of the NAACP. The organization remained in place until the battle over the white primary was over, although some local chapters still existed long after, such as the Richland County Citizens' Committee. The work would continue.

The next major project for the NAACP was the elimination of the white primary, a project dear to the hearts of the state members. A court decision in a 1944 Texas case had declared political parties to be state organizations rather than private clubs. Determined to stop blacks from voting, the S.C. state legislature dropped all its primary voting laws so that the party would would qualify as a private club outside of state control. Efforts by members of the NAACP, including Modjeska Simkins, to register to vote in the Democratic primary were unsuccessful until George Elmore, a taxidriver with a light skin color, walked in and registered. Soon he became a plaintiff in a lawsuit charging that skin color determined whether one could register and the battle was on.  Modjeska Simkins, who was financially independent, was a financial supporter of  George Elmore. Although he won his lawsuit in 1947, the state NAACP had to file a second lawsuit in order to secure the right for blacks to vote. They won that suit in 1948. Modjeska, although not a lawyer, was quite familiar with the issues in the cases. She helped to plan the legal strategy and even attended the trials in both Columbia and in Washington, D.C. Afterwards, she was one of many in the NAACP involved in educating African-Americans across the state about their "new" rights. This was necessary because South Carolina changed its registration laws to make registration and voting as difficult as possible for blacks.

In 1947 the NAACP sponsored a lawsuit designed to force the state to provide bus transportation for black as well as white students. The suit arose in Clarendon County and was initially thrown out of court on a technicality. By 1950 the case had evolved to a more general lawsuit challenging segregation.  The district court judge, J. Waties Waring, was sympathetic and had ties with the national NAACP. He was anxious to take on the "separate but equal doctrine" that had ruled since an 1896 Supreme Court decision, Plessy v. Ferguson. In 1950, at a national NAACP meeting, the organization agreed to change its legal strategy from one of seeking equal education to eliminating segregation altogether. With the support of the national NAACP, the state chapter decided to pursue these broader goals. However, twenty people would have to be enlisted as plaintiffs, a difficult task in one of the poorest counties in the state. The farmer who had filed the initial lawsuit, Levi Pearson, found himself without credit and thus unable to farm. Modjeska Simkins helped to find the funds to enable the man to continue to make a living during this difficult period. Much of the groundwork for the court case was done in her home at her dining room table. Thurgood Marshall, the NAACP lawyer who would argue the case, was a friend, and he stayed at her home when he was in town. Other lawyers and staff members would stay nearby and then meet at her house to work. With Rev. Joseph DeLaine, a chapter president in Clarendon County, Modjeska wrote the statement that was used in the court case. As soon as twenty names were obtained for the lawsuit, DeLaine and others involved lost their jobs. But the NAACP went ahead and filed the case of Briggs v. Elliot. The case later became one of the five desegregation suits grouped together by the Supreme Court and decided as the historic Brown v. Board of Education in 1954.

During this period life was very difficult for the brave individuals who challenged the status quo. Segregationists formed a white Citizens Council in 1955 after black parents petitioned for school integration. The parents found themselves jobless, without credit, and often homeless. Fourteen of seventeen petitioners asked to have their names removed from the petition, claiming that they hadn't understood what they were signing. Modjeska Simkins was involved in helping to provide economic support for for these people, who lived in Clarendon and Elloree counties. Her brother Henry Monteith was president of the Victory Savings Bank in Columbia. The two sent out letters under the auspices of the state NAACP asking both black and white organizations to deposit funds in the bank so they could make loans to the victims of discrimination. Modjeska brought a trailer filled with donated goods to Elloree to help the beleaguered families there, some of whom lacked the most basic items of food and clothing. She wrote articles for black newspapers publicizing what was happening and which white businesses were withholding essential items from black businesses. She wrote an article that was published in Jet Magazine that stimulated contributions from all over the U.S. and abroad. She received many small donations. Typical of the responses are the following handwritten letters, both dated October 15, 1955:  "Dear Mrs. Simkins, Here is a small donation. Please take it to help those people in Clarendon CountyYours truly, Amston Stokes."   "Dear Mrs. Simkins, My wife and I just read of the Citizen Council's inhuman attitude toward South Carolina Negroes in Jet Magazine. May God help the suppressed colored people in your state and elsewhere in the sleeping South...Sincerely, Mr. and Mrs. William Stewart."

Mrs. Simkins continued her work with the NAACP. But as the end of segregation approached, black organizations such as the NAACP and black activists were often attacked and labeled as "Communists." As the Cold War heated up in the late 1940s and early 1950s, Mrs. Simkins came to the attention of the U.S. House UnAmerican Activities Committee (HUAC), which maintained a file on her. Her friends included some leaders of the American Communist Party. She would not turn her back on them. She publicly supported W.E.B. DuBois, who was tried in court for failing to register as a Communist, and she campaigned for a Communist who ran for public office.  She belonged to a number of organizations that were watched by HUAC. These included the Southern Negro Youth Congress and the Southern Conference for Human Welfare. In 1952 she became the vice-president of the Southern Conference Educational Fund, an offshoot of the Southern Conference for Human Welfare. Several leaders of the American Communist Party belonged to those organizations, which were labeled as Communist fronts. National NAACP officials were not happy with Modjeska's Communist affiliations.

The South Carolina legislature asked the U.S. government to put the NAACP on the "subversive list" in 1956. The 1957 meeting of the South Carolina Conference of the NAACP marked the end of Modjeska's Simkins' formal association with the organization. She was not asked to serve again as secretary, a position she had held for sixteen years, but was replaced by the Rev. I. D. Newman. The parting of the ways was not amicable and may have resulted in part from the Communist taint. Some historians have suggested that the white establishment used the fear of Communism  to pressure black organizations into removing the most effective leaders (Aba-Mecha, 1978). NAACP leaders were aware of the negative press that Mrs. Simkins had received for her associations, and in 1954, the South Carolina press had publicized her participation in a rally for a convicted Communist who was her friend. However, in a 1977 interview, Mrs. Simkins attributed her ouster to pressure by the white establishment on state president James Hinton and felt that he had grown tired of fighting them (Aba-Mecha, 1977).  Certainly, all of the leaders of the state NAACP had faced intimidation. Some had lost their jobs, some had been imprisoned, and some, like Hinton and Simkins, had shots fired into their homes. Even the white judge who had helped to get the school desegregation lawsuit started, Waties Waring, had retired and moved to New York.

In a memo to the officers and members of local branches, Mrs. Simkins responded to a news release issued by the NAACP, which stated tactfully that she had "declined re-election" as state secretary. Never one to mince words, she stated: "...I did not! This deliberate untruth naturally could have lead my hundreds of friends and acquaintances throughout the Nation to believe that I had turned my back on my people and our cause in this needy time. Without exception, however, those who have talked with me since have refused to accept the inference of the ulterior assertion that I 'declined re-election.' " (Simkins, Memo...) She retained her membership in the NAACP, but from that time on, focused on volunteer work at the local level and on paid employment.

Her enemies continued to wave the red flag of Communism over the years. In 1966, when Mrs. Simkins agreed to speak at a dinner for Dr. Herbert Aptheker, Director of the Institute of Marxist Studies in New York City, Governor McNair and other leaders of the state Democratic Party demanded that she leave the party. At that time she was running for the state House of Representatives and was also engaged in a political battle with McNair and other Democratic leaders who she accused of "...foot-dragging on desegregation, especially in mental health institutions" ("Mrs. Simkins Asked to Leave..."). Her response was they could leave, but she was staying, and that she had seen Aptheker just once since she had met him during World War II, but considered him a "scholar and gentleman..." ("Mrs. Simkins Asked to Leave..."). On a copy of a newspaper article about the conflict that she had clipped, she noted: "The fact is that I do not  give a half a damn about all three [public officials demanding her ouster] put together." In a later interview, Modjeska Simkins stated that she had never belonged to the Communist Party, but that she had joined a lot of groups that were called Communist fronts "so that I've been Red-smeared up and down South Carolina" (Hall, 1976).

In 1956 Modjeska Simkins once again took a salaried job, as public-relations director at Victory Savings Bank, where her brother was president. In an interview conducted in 1977, Mrs. Simkins stated that she took the job at the request of her mother, who wanted at least one family member to remain active in the bank. At that time, her brother was not well (Aba-Mecha, 1977). She remained with the bank until 1982, heading the bookkeeping department and then managing a branch. A full-time job took up much of her time, and the primary focus of her civic activities became local.

Throughout her life Modjeska Simkins was a community activist. Her name comes up again and again, whenever an organization is formed or efforts are made to alleviate conditions for African-Americans in South Carolina through much of the twentieth century. She was involved with the South Carolina Committee of the Commission on Interracial Cooperation, a bi-racial organization that attempted to improve black-white relations. She participated in the Durham Conference, a meeting of black leaders in 1942 that led to the formation of the Southern Regional Council.  In the 1940s she served as public relations officer for the Columbia Town Hall Congress, an interracial organization which provided intellectual and moral support to enlisted servicemen and for the Columbia Women's Council, a black women's organization whose goal was to encourage black citizens to register and vote. She also served as vice president of the Richland County Division of the Southern Regional Council. She worked with the Southern Conference for Human Welfare as it sought to bring about integration. She directed a campaign to renovate Good Samaritan Hospital, a black-owned hospital and the only facility in the area that served blacks. In the 1950s she was the South Carolina liaison for the Civil Rights Congress and the  United Negro and Allied Veterans of America, an organization that provided support services for veterans returning from the war.  She was director of the Richland County Citizens' Committee through much of this period, an organization involved in community affairs and a black activist group. Through this organization she worked to desegregate city recreation facilities and to integrate the South Carolina Mental Hospital. In the early 1960s the group was involved in an unsuccessful attempt to desegregate city schools. She continued her work with this group through the 1970s.

Mrs. Simkins understood the importance of participating in the electoral process. She knew that it would take more than just registering and voting to bring about change. She ran for political office four times herself, running for City Council in 1966 and 1983, for the school board, and for the State House of Representatives. She never won any elected office.

She was active in both the Republican and Democratic parties, but then became disillusioned about each. However, she never tied herself down to one party. Initially she was a Republican at a time when the Democratic Party in the South had no place for blacks. She was a delegate to the Republican National Convention in 1944. She also supported the Progressive Democratic Party, originally the Colored Democratic Party, formed by Osceola McKaine and John McCray in 1944, writing, planning and organizing. Despite her connections to the Republicans, she worked for McKaine in his unsuccessful bid for the U.S. Senate that year. In 1948 she supported the third party candidacy of National Progressive Party candidate Henry Wallace. Years later she was involved with another third party, the United Citizens' Party, and served as its chair.

She left the Republican Party after the national Democrat Party became associated with civil rights in the late 1940s. Segregationist white Democrats in the South began to shift their allegiance to the Republicans, so the party was no longer a comfortable place for a black activist. They were "looking funny at me...Well, they looked like they had crawled out of some cracks from somewhere..." (Hall, 1976). She left the Republican Party for good in 1952. In a public statement in October 1952, she explained that she was voting for Democratic presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson because Republican candidate Dwight Eisenhower, "a man of good intentions - though often ill-advised..." had come to South Carolina and associated with "bad company..." which was "...not only opposed to the fuller life of my people, they are a blighting influence upon the state of South Carolina..." (Simkins, "I Shall Vote...").

The Democrats, in turn, failed to bring about the change she desired. In a 1981 letter to the chair of the state Democratic Party, she said: "Frankly, I owe no allegiance to the State Democratic Party, due to its historical and traditional treatment of my people by denying the constitutional liberties guaranteed to native born Americans for centuries, and more recently rights given under constitutional amendments. Additionally, the state party employed and still uses various and vicious subterfuges to deny Negroes the full right to vote effectively...I consider myself a National Democrat, of which there are very, very few in South Carolina. Being independent in political philosophy, I am not married to any party..." (Letter to W.J. Bryan Dorn)

The often ascerbic Mrs. Simkins understood that to bring about political change required constant pressure. To the establishment, satisfied with the status quo and accustomed to dictating to minorities who felt powerless to bring about change, she must have seemed like a mosquito that never stopped its buzzing. As she commented in an interview conducted when she was 78, "You know, I was always afflicted with nose trouble -  I could never keep my nose out of other people's business..." (Marsh). In mid-life, she fought for civil rights and for better government. She spoke at city council and school board meetings, demanding integration. She ran for political office on a progressive, clean up government platform. She founded and held a leadership role in the Richland County Citizens' Council, a grassroots organization that focused on honesty in government and voter registration. In her later years, at a time of life when most people would have been content to sit in a rocking chair by the fire, dozing and dreaming about the past, Modjeska Simkins remained an activist. Speaking to a group of college students when she was 90 years old, Mrs. Simkins told the students they must vote if they wished to bring about change. She said: "The vote is the thing that makes a difference between a free man and a slave" (Ellison, 1990).

As a civil rights activist who grew up when there were few opportunities for African-Americans, Mrs. Simkins was somewhat skeptical about the complaints of those who found integration difficult to swallow. In a 1986 interview, she commented: "Today you hear a lot about busing. Well, there never was a whimper when white children were being bused and black children were walking...When they start busing black children, then comes this bellyaching about busing. As late as 1934 there were a number of black schools in this state running only four months...The Negro parents would get together and have fish fries or some kind of activity to raise some money and get this $50 to pay this teacher another month. When it got up to $75, it was just like going to heaven without dying. You see, that's the separate but equal they were talking about..." (Moniz, "I've always been...")

In her lifetime Mrs. Simkins was recognized for her contributions with a number of honors and awards. She received the Order of the Palmetto from the state of South Carolina. The Columbia branch of the NAACP named a scholarship in her honor, and  in 1980 an endowment that bestowed funds on small nonprofit organizations was named for her. Benedict College honored her by giving her name to its research archives. A portrait painted by South Carolina artist Larry Lebby hangs in the South Carolina Statehouse.

In 1996 a community group began to raise funds to preserve Modjeska Simkins' house, which had been empty since her death. The house, which is over 100 years old, was purchased by the Simkins in 1932 and was the nerve center for the planning for much civil rights strategy. Because the house was in poor condition, the city of Columbia had planned to demolish it despite its listing on the National Register of Historic Places. Under the leadership of a community group, the Collaborative for Community Trust, about $60,000 of the needed $325,000 was raised within a year. By late 2002, the restoration had been completed. The house has been restored as nearly as possible to the way it was in Modjeska Simkins' time. Fund-raising continued in order to restore and preserve furniture and other antiques that were donated. As of late 2007, the Historic Columbia Foundation had assumed responsibility for management of the Simkins house. More information is available by calling 803-929-7742 or at their website.

Those who knew her remember Modjeska Simkins as an outspoken woman who never hesitated to say what was on her mind. When she saw something that was wrong, she tried to make it right. Judge Matthew Perry said of her: "I think she probably will be remembered as a woman who challenged everyone. She challenged the white political leadership of the state to do what was fair and equitable among all people. And she challenged black citizens to stand up and demand their rightful place in the state and the nation" (Krell, 1992). George Murphy, Jr., who first met Modjeska in 1927 and who worked with her in the 1940s when he was adjutant general of the United Negro and Allied Veterans, described her as "one of the great black women of the South" and said she had "...a sense of mission with the poor..." at a time when blacks were very poor and the races were separated (Murphy).  She took on such establishment figures as Senators Hollings and Thurmond, and expressed her scorn at the failure of religious leaders and organized religion to play a strong role in solving social problems.

 Although she spent her life fighting for civil rights for African-Americans, Modjeska Simkins' concerns and compassion extended to all of society's downtrodden. In an interview she once said: "I don't want to see anybody suffer, and I will fight for anybody who is suffering...You know we are all a part of humanity, and when one of us loses, we all lose. When one human being dies, each of us dies a little bit too" ("Remembering Modjeska;" Marsh).
 

Carol Sears Botsch, USC Aiken
carolb@aiken.sc.edu


The Modjeska Monteith Simkins papers are held by the South Caroliniana Library at the University of South Carolina, Columbia, South Carolina, in the Modern Political Collections.

A documentary produced by SCETV entitled  Makin' A Way Out of No Way:  Modjeska Monteith Simkins, may be of interest to readers of this web site. Contact South Carolina ETV for further information on availability.

 

Sources:

"A Heroine in Her Own Time," Palmetto Post (February 28, 1985), n.p. Modjeska Monteith Simkins Papers, South Caroliniana Library, University of South Carolina.

Aba-Mecha, Barbara W. "South Carolina Conference of NAACP: Origin and Major Accomplishments, 1939-1954," Proceedings of the South Carolina Historical Association (1981), pp.1-21.

Bedenbaugh, Amy. "Seek 'audacious power' for equality fight, Columbia civil rights leader tells blacks." The Gamecock (April 18, 1984), n.p. Modjeska Monteith Simkins Papers, South Caroliniana Library, University of South Carolina.

Billington, Thomas. "Area Negro Schools Inferior to White, Committee Charges," Columbia Record (May 12, 1965), n.p. Modjeska Monteith Simkins Papers, South Caroliniana Library, University of South Carolina

Bolton, Warren. "Portrait in South Carolina House honors civil rights pioneer Simkins," The State (April 26, 1995), n.p. Modjeska Monteith Simkins Papers, South Caroliniana Library, University of South Carolina

Bursey, Brett. "Modjeska," Point (May 1992), p.10. Reprinted as "Remembering Modjeska," Point (January 1995), p.6. Modjeska Monteith Simkins Papers, South Caroliniana Library, University of South Carolina.

Burton, Orville Vernon. untitled paper on Modjeska Simkins. Modjeska Monteith Simkins Papers, South Caroliniana Library, University of South Carolina.

"Citizens' Group Endorses Chase for County Sheriff," Columbia Record (October 7, 1976), n.p. Modjeska Monteith Simkins Papers, South Caroliniana Library, University of South Carolina.

"Civil Rights Group Proposes Abolition of Full-Slate Law," Columbia Record (December 15, 1969), p.1B. Modjeska Monteith Simkins Papers, South Caroliniana Library, University of South Carolina.

The Columbia College Afro-American Club. "A Portrait of the Columbia Black Woman: 1800s-Present." video. 1982.

Davis, Marianna (editor). Contributions of Black Women to America Volume II  (Columbia, S.C.: Kenday Press, 1982), pp.103-105.

Davis, Michelle R. "Artist paints portrait of former state justice," Augusta Chronicle (February 27, 1998), http://augustachronicle.com/stories/022798/met_124-1050.shtml (June 30, 1999)

"Do Not Wish Booker Washington High School Moved," The Palmetto Leader (June 20, 1966), p.1. Modjeska Monteith Simkins Papers, South Caroliniana Library, University of South Carolina.

Eichel, Henry. "Civil rights pioneer Simkins lauded as mother of S.C. efforts," The Charlotte Observer (April 10, 1992), 1A, 5A.

Ellison, Soyia. "Activist Urges Student Involvement." The Daily Tar Heel (November 13, 1990), p.1, 7. Modjeska Monteith Simkins Papers, South Caroliniana Library, University of South Carolina

Hall, Jacqueline. Interview with Modjeska Simkins. July 28-31, 1976. History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Modjeska Monteith Simkins Papers, South Caroliniana Library, University of South Carolina.

Hemmingway, Theodore. Beneath the Yoke of Bondage: A History of Black Folks in South Carolina, 1900 - 1940  (Ann Arbor, Michigan: University Microfilms International, 1976).

Hinshaw, Dawn. "Preservation of home allows civil rights legacy to live on." The State (May 26, 1997), p.A1, A8.

"House a Living Legacy of Civil Rights Struggle," The State (February 3, 1999), p.B1.

Joyner, Charles W. "Commentaries," The Proceedings of the South Carolina Historical Association (1981), pp.23-27.

"Keller H. Bumgardner, First Recipient of the Modjeska Simkins Prize." The Chronicle (April 17, 1982), p.5B. Modjeska Monteith Simkins Papers, South Caroliniana Library, University of South Carolina.

Krell, G. Kent. "Modjeska Simkins raised hell among the peckerwoods." The State (April 8, 1992), A12.

Lester, Will. "Modjeska: A Veteran in the fight for Civil and Human Rights." The State (June 28, 1981), n.p. Modjeska Monteith Simkins Papers, South Caroliniana Library, University of South Carolina.

Lofton, Paul S. Jr. "Calm and Exemplary: Desegregation in Columbia, South Carolina," in Southern Businessmen and Desegregation (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1982)

Lofton, Paul. "The Columbia Black Community in the 1930s," The Proceedings of the South Carolina Historical Association (1984), pp.86-95.

Marsh, Marian. "Modjeska Simkins. Activist. Banker.Warrior. Teacher. Philosopher. Humanist." Antie Bellum (Summer-Fall, 1977), pp.2-4. Modjeska Monteith Simkins Papers, South Caroliniana Library, University of South Carolina.

Moniz, Dave. "I've always been an independent thinker," The State (March 9, 1986), 48-51.

"Mrs. Simpkins [sic] Asked to Leave Democratic Party," Columbia Record (April 15, 1966), n.p. Modjeska Monteith Simkins Papers, South Caroliniana Library, University of South Carolina

Murphy, George Jr. Interview conducted at office of Afro-American Newspaper, September 2, 1976. Modjeska Monteith Simkins Papers, South Caroliniana Library, University of South Carolina.

O'Shea, Margaret N. "Committee Demands Hospital Accounting," The State (May 3, 1973), n.p. Modjeska Monteith Simkins Papers, South Caroliniana Library, University of South Carolina.

Price, H.D. The Negro and Southern Politics (New York: New York University Press, 1957)

Rantin, Bertram. "Group plans to restore Simkins' house." The State (May 22, 1996), A1, A10.

"The Richland County Citizens Committee Stays on the Firing Line." Memo, n.d. Modjeska Monteith Simkins Papers, South Caroliniana Library, University of South Carolina.

"Services for Mrs. Simkins Thursday at 1," the State (April 8, 1992), 4B.

Simkins, Modjeska Monteith. Letter to Mr. W.J. Bryan Dorn. April 16, 1981. Modjeska Monteith Simkins Papers, South Caroliniana Library, University of South Carolina.

Simkins, Modjeska M. "An Appeal."  n.d. Modjeska Monteith Simkins Papers, South Caroliniana Library, University of South Carolina.

Simkins, Modjeska. Draft of article submitted to Norfolk, Va. Journal and Guide, August 1947. Modjeska Monteith Simkins Papers, South Caroliniana Library, University of South Carolina.

Simkins, Modjeska. "I Shall Vote for Adlai Stevenson." Written announcement. October 22, 1952. Modjeska Monteith Simkins Papers, South Caroliniana Library, University of South Carolina.

Simkins, Modjeska. untitled campaign paper of February 24, 1966. Modjeska Monteith Simkins Papers, South Caroliniana Library, University of South Carolina.

Simkins, Modjeska. Letter to the State newspaper. May 18, 1981. Modjeska Monteith Simkins Papers, South Caroliniana Library, University of South Carolina.

Simkins, Modjeska. Press release. 1984 campaign. Modjeska Monteith Simkins Papers, South Caroliniana Library, University of South Carolina.

Simkins, Modjeska. "S.C. Race Relations Mostly Cosmetic." The Charleston Chronicle (June 6, 1981). n.p. Modjeska Monteith Simkins Papers, South Caroliniana Library, University of South Carolina.

Simkins, Modjeska. Memo to officers and members of local branches of NAACP. n.d. Modjeska Monteith Simkins Papers, South Caroliniana Library, University of South Carolina.

Simkins, Modjeska. Transcript of broadcast for Richland County Citizens' Council. February 27, 1976. Modjeska Monteith Simkins Papers, South Caroliniana Library, University of South Carolina.

Simkins, Modjeska. Transcript of broadcast for Richland County Citizens' Council. May 5, 1976. Modjeska Monteith Simkins Papers, South Caroliniana Library, University of South Carolina.

Sloan, Eugene B. "Freeman Declared Winner: Mrs. Simkins Gives Protest," The State (March 5, 1966), p. 1B. Modjeska Monteith Simkins Papers, South Caroliniana Library, University of South Carolina.

Southern, David W. "Beyond Jim Crow Liberalism: Judge Waring's Fight Against Segregation in South Carolina, 1942-52," The Journal of Negro History  LXVI (Fall 1981), pp.209-227.

Stewart, Mr. and Mrs. William. Letter to Modjeska Simkins. October 15, 1955. Modjeska Monteith Simkins Papers, South Caroliniana Library, University of South Carolina.

Stokes, Amston. Letter to Modjeska Simkins. October 15, 1955. Modjeska Monteith Simkins Papers, South Caroliniana Library, University of South Carolina.

"Testimonial for a Communist." The Columbia Record (April 12, 1966), p. 10A. Modjeska Monteith Simkins Papers, South Caroliniana Library, University of South Carolina.

"Un-American Activity Group Exhibits List Mrs. Simkins." The News and Courier (October 23, 1953), n.p. Modjeska Monteith Simkins Papers, South Caroliniana Library, University of South Carolina.

Wickenberg, Charles H. Jr. "Simkins leaves legacy of civil rights victories," The State (April 6, 1992), pp.1A, 5A.

Woods, Barbara. "Mary Modjeska Monteith Simkins (1899-1992)" in Black Women in America (Brooklyn, N.Y.: Carlson Publishing Company, 1993), pp.1032-1035.

Woods, Barbara. "Modjeska Simkins (1899- )," in Notable Black American Women (Detroit: Gale Research, Inc., 1992), pp.1011-1015.

Woods, Barbara A. "Modjeska Simkins and the South Carolina Conference of the NAACP, 1939-1957" in Women in the Civil Rights Movement: Trailblazers and Torchbearers, 1941-1965 (Black Women in United States History series). (Brooklyn, N.Y.: Carlson Publishing Company, 1990), pp.99-120.
 

Research for this project was supported by a Faculty Exchange grant from the University of South Carolina.
 
 

last updated 12/14/2007
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