#TBT: Who is Modjeska Monteith Simkins?

By: Lois Carlisle, Consulting Historian

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Modjeska Simkins on her porch

For more than sixty years, Modjeska Monteith Simkins used the wooden cottage at the corner of Elmwood and Marion St. as both a home and a headquarters.

Known as the “matriarch of Civil Rights activists” in S.C., Modjeska Monteith Simkins led the charge for equality tirelessly her entire adult life. Simkins was born in 1899, the granddaughter of emancipated slaves and eldest of eight children. Simkins devoted her life to fighting injustices placed upon African Americans. Not only did she work during a time when systematic oppression and violence ensnared the black community, but she was a woman in a man’s world. 

Marion Street historical image
Marion Street | Image courtesy of South Caroliniana Library, University of South Carolina, Columbia

From her porch, Simkins kept a keen eye on the once-bustling neighborhood around her. Though never slow to offer money or a free meal to a stranger, she would often say, “Just because I helped you once, don’t think that I adopted you.”
 
That slogan can still be seen on a plaque outside of the building at Elmwood + Marion (across the street from No Name Deli), now home to local nonprofit SC Progressive Network.

Panel outside house
Photo by @COLAtoday
Modjeska Simkins House
Photo by @COLAtoday

Women Are More Than Women

After graduating from Benedict College in 1921, Simkins taught mathematics at Booker T. Washington High School on Wheat St. When she married Andrew Simkins in 1929, she was dismissed from her teaching position. There was a strict policy set down by the school board which prevented married women from being in the classroom.

Modjeska Simkins reading
Simkins reading | Image courtesy the South Carolina State Museum

Simkins, who believed that women could simultaneously be wives and mothers and teachers and whatever-else-they-chose, continued to live her pluralistic life.

Following her marriage, Simkins helped to found (and worked at) Victory Savings Bank, one of the oldest African American-owned banks in the country. Victory provided loans to local blacks who could not secure them from Columbia’s larger, white-owned banks, so it served as an emblem of financial independence + stability. Victory closed in March 1999 after struggling for years – but an investor group paid $404K to save the bank – turning it into South Carolina Community Bank (which is still around today at 1545 Sumter St.).

Simkins & The Green Book

In the Jim Crow era, lodging options were slim for African Americans. Often families drove all night instead of lodging in unfamiliar towns. They were regularly turned away from restaurants, and instead ate picnic lunches on the road. There are accounts of families who carried portable toilets cross-country because African Americans were not permitted to use highway rest stops.

Green Book
Green Book | Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons

In 1936, Victor Hugo Green introduced his Green Book, which listed (state-by-state) restaurants, hotels, service stations + other establishments that would welcome African American patrons.

Simkins’ humanitarianism stretched beyond politics. During her time as an employee (and later the owner) at Motel Simbeth just outside of Columbia, Simkins provided hospitality and shelter for weary black travelers. Listed in the Green Book, Motel Simbeth became a landmark business for the local civil rights movement. During the 1960s, newspapers reported several instances in which hotel guests were terrorized by gunfire.

Recently, the SC African American Heritage Commission revived the Green Book to showcase more than 300 African American cultural sites across S.C. Simkins’ home is one of the featured stops.

Briggs v. Elliot

When it comes to civil rights cases, Brown v. Board of Education stands as a benchmark. But DYK the origins of Brown v. Board can be found not in Kansas, but in Clarendon County, S.C.?

Liberty Hill Colored School
Schoolhouse | Image courtesy of the South Carolina Department of Archives and History

Simkins blazed an unprecedented trail when she was elected as the first female secretary of the NAACP’s South Carolina state conference. She worked side-by-side with her male counterparts in writing and gaining support for a petition that became part of the influential Briggs v. Elliot case.

In the early 1950s, African American parents in Clarendon Country demanded equalized services for their children from the school board. (At the time, black children in South Carolina were forced to attend classes in dilapidated one-room structures without proper heating or running water. At the same time, white children benefited from more modern facilities as well as freshly printed textbooks and lab equipment.) Pleas were made and arguments were prepped in Allen University’s Chappelle Auditorium.

The case made by Clarendon parents became one of several included in the same docket as Brown v. Board. It was Simkins, who had seen firsthand the pitfalls of the so-called “separate, but equal” policies adopted by the state, who played a major role in bringing equality to South Carolina’s rural schools.

“I woke up this morning with my mind set on freedom.”

Dedicated to the fight for human rights until her death at age 91, Modjeska Simkins’ passion for change propelled many different organizations.

Modjeska Simkins
Simkins at the microphone | Image courtesy South Carolina State Museum

She was a longtime correspondent for the Associated Negro Press, an international news agency that provided coverage of events and institutions affecting the lives of black Americans. A three-time candidate for elected office, Simkins defied labels while committing herself to achieving fairness and equality beyond the civil rights movement.

She became a leader in the Richland County Concerned Citizens Committee (RCCC) and the Southern Conference for Human Welfare. As head of public relations for the RCCC, she championed important topics, such as integrating public schools and universities and improving living conditions for black mental health patients in South Carolina.

She also hosted a weekly radio program on Columbia’s WOIC (now a sports radio channel – 94.9 FM).She began each show with her signature tagline, “I woke up this morning with my mind set on freedom.”

Modjeska Simkins
Simkins in an armchair | Image courtesy SCETV

In spreading ideas about health care and human rights, Simkins was part of a national network of activists. She was a gritty political organizer for whom commitment to the cause was more important than alignment with any one group.

Renowned for her tenacity and dedication, Simkins left her mark in education, health care, and race and class labor relations. She demonstrated the power of leading by example. Her legacy challenges us to carry on her work in the fight for human rights.

If you’d like to read more about Simkins in her own words (the way she would want it), then head over to South Carolina Political Collections for dazzling, autobiographical oral histories. Why not sub out your morning podcast for an hour of Civil Rights history?

And keep your eyes peeled: Last year, HC received a National Parks Service grant to further rehabilitate the MMS site to better continue the legacy of our state’s fiercest Civil Rights advocate. 

If you’re looking to get more hands-on with history, Columbia SC 63 is offering walking tours of Main St. every Sunday in February.

Of course, the legacies, histories + stories of African Americans extend far beyond February 28. Explore different narratives throughout 2018 and beyond with a free online walking tour, a film screening or the newly launched Green Book of South Carolina app.

And if you have a story you’d like to share, please get in touch. Columbia speaks with many different voices and we want to hear them all.

–Lois from Historic Columbia + Beth from COLAtoday

This is part of our #TBT collaboration with COLAtoday.