Martha Cunningham Monteith (1921-2019)

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Friday, August 2nd 2019

Martha Cunningham Monteith checks out the last book at Richland Library’s original building on Sumter Street, 1990.

This week we mourn the passing of Martha Cunningham Monteith, a celebrated civic figure who served as Richland School District One’s first trained speech pathologist. Martha Elizabeth Cunningham was born on May 26, 1921 in Union, South Carolina, to the Reverend Bennie C. Cunningham, Sr., and Fannie Gilliam Cunningham. She graduated from Fairfield County Training School in 1938 and enrolled at Allen University in Columbia, where she initially boarded with Ruth R. Brown in the Waverly neighborhood. After graduating with honors in 1942, she was hired by the Columbia Public School system to teach at the segregated Carver School. After completing graduate course work at Howard University and a master’s degree in speech therapy from Western Reserve University, she created a speech pathology program at Waverly School in 1949, the first of its kind in the district. During her 45-year career, Monteith served as senior speech pathologist and then Richland District One’s coordinator for speech pathology before retiring in 1987. She also served on the summer school faculty at Allen University and South Carolina State University and helped create the speech pathology program at the latter institution as well as the University of South Carolina. In 2012, Richland School District One inducted her into its Hall of Fame.

In 1959, the former Miss Cunningham married Dr. Henry Dobbins Monteith, respected physician and then-president of the black-owned Victory Savings Bank. Just four years later, the front yard of their home on North Main Street was bombed by unknown assailants in what was believed to be an attempt to intimidate their niece, Henrie, from enrolling at the University of South Carolina. (This effort failed, and Henrie Dobbins Monteith was one of three students to desegregate UofSC on September 11, 1963.) After her retirement, Martha Cunningham Monteith devoted herself to a variety of civic and philanthropic pursuits. She served on the board of directors of Victory Savings Bank, was a key benefactor of the Large Print Center at Richland County Public Library, and established the B.C. Cunningham Family Life Center in her father’s honor at her place of worship, Turner Memorial A.M.E. Church. She also partnered with local preservation groups, including Historic Columbia, the Booker T. Washington Foundation, and the Eau Claire Community Council, to save two important historic structures: the former home of her sister-in-law, Modjeska Monteith Simkins, the well-known human rights activist, and the Monteith School, a segregated two-room schoolhouse named for her mother-in-law, Rachel Hull Monteith, who served as the school’s longtime principal. The Monteith School also employed another sister-in-law, Rachel Rebecca Monteith, who sued for equal pay in 1944 and won, a key moment in the state’s civil rights struggle. To hear more about Monteith’s life in her own words, listen to her oral history here, made available by Richland Library.


Martha Monteith Cunningham, 2012. Image courtesy UofSC’s South Carolina Political Collections

Fairfield County Training School, class of 1938. Martha Cunningham is pictured in the front row, far right. Her brother, Bennie Cunningham, Jr., is pictured in the back row, third from the left. Image courtesy UofSC’s South Carolina Political Collections

Martha Elizabeth Cunningham at Howard University, 1946. Image courtesy UofSC’s South Carolina Political Collections

Martha and Henry Monteith examine a crater made by a bomb thrown into their yard on North Main Street, 1963. Image courtesy The State Newspaper Photograph Archive, Richland Library

Martha Cunningham Monteith checks out the last book at Richland Library’s original building on Sumter Street, 1990. Monteith recalled being unable to check out a book on Malcolm X at this branch decades before, when Columbia’s libraries were segregated. Image courtesy Richland Library Archives, Richland Library