Columbia City of Women: Celebrating Columbia's Black Women Leaders

Black Women Leaders of Columbia SC

One of the essential tenets of the Columbia City of Women project is that we believe in the importance of moving through a city where women and their achievements are celebrated, the adversity they faced is recognized, and their stories inspire and connect us. In recognition of Black History Month, we honor the Black women who impacted or continue to impact Columbia and beyond.  


Ethel Martin Bolden

Beginning in 1944, Bolden established libraries in all but three of Columbia's Black elementary schools, where she placed particular emphasize on the collecting of books documenting America’s black history. This ethos continued when she was asked to integrate Dreher High School in 1968 as its head librarian. More 

Matilda Arabella Evans, M.D.

In 1897, Dr. Matilda Evans became the first board-certified woman physician in South Carolina. She fostered relationships between black and white citizens to create two hospitals, a nurse training facility, and the Columbia Clinic, which provided free healthcare to African American Children. More 

Nikky Finney

In 2011, Professor Finney’s fourth poetry collection, Head Off & Split, won the National Book Award for Poetry. Her acceptance speech, which describes — and confronts —moments and people central to African American history, became as legendary as her poems. More 

Sarah Mae Fleming 

In 1954, Sarah Mae Flemming became the public face of the fight to desegregate intrastate transportation in South Carolina after being assaulted on a bus for sitting in the wrong seat. After more than three years of dismissals, appeals, and two trials, Flemming received no financial compensation, yet the ruling provided the legal roadmap for Rosa Parks’ case more than a year later. More 

Edna Smith Primus 

In 1972, Primus became the first African American woman graduate of the University of South Carolina School of Law. After working with the ACLU to help impoverished, pregnant women understand their legal rights, she was publicly reprimanded by the SC Supreme Court for solicitation. She appealed to the US Supreme Court and won; In re Primus remains a landmark case that is still taught today. More 

The Rollin Sisters 

Frances, Charlotte, and Katherine Rollin grew up as free people of color in antebellum Charleston. They moved to Columbia after the Civil War and established a space for interracial dialogue about political and civil affairs during Reconstruction. They were among the first and most significant women suffragists in South Carolina during that era. More 

Celia Dial Saxon 

Saxon was born enslaved in Columbia in 1857. In 1887, she was one of eight African American women to graduate from the South Carolina State Normal School for teachers on the campus of the University of South Carolina during Reconstruction. She entered the classroom later that year and taught for 55 of the next 57 years, influencing generations of black Columbians. More 

Modjeska Monteith Simkins 

An unrelenting activist and advocate for human rights, Simkins' civic engagement extended to health care, women’s rights and the environment. As a member of the leadership of the SC NAACP, Simkins joined with other activists to challenge South Carolina’s continued flouting of established law and was influential in the fight for racial equality. More 

Dawn Staley 

In 2017, Coach Staley led our women’s basketball team to the NCAA Tournament title, clinching only the second women’s athletics title in the history of the university. This accomplishment followed decades of success as a player and coach, even as these roles overlapped. More 

Henrie Monteith Treadwell 

Raised within a family of activists devoted to advancing the South Carolina civil rights movement,  Henrie Monteith (Treadwell) continued this tradition by suing for admittance to the University of South Carolina. After a summer of threats and at least one bombing attempt, she and two other courageous students broke the university’s color line on September 11, 1963. More 

Donella Brown Wilson 

In 1948, Wilson took her place in line among hundreds of Black citizens that lived in the Ward 9 voting precinct. She, along with an estimated 30,000 black voters newly enfranchised by the recent court rulings Elmore v. Rice and Brown v. Baskin, cast ballots in South Carolina’s Democratic Primary for the first time in history. She voted in every election for the next 70 years. More 


“A'ja Wilson is a powerful player on and off the basketball court. Her voice and actions resonate for me, because she reflects the same perseverance, determination, and grace of each woman recognized by the Columbia City of Women.” 

- Rachel Hodges, Columbia City of Women Founder and former First Lady of South Carolina 

Earlier this year, our city’s backdrop was enhanced by the unveiling of the A’ja Wilson statue in front of Colonial Life Arena. The WNBA and South Carolina women’s basketball star now represents the only monument on UofSC’s campus of an individual woman – and the third to honor an African American.

A Columbia native, Wilson now plays for the Las Vegas Aces and finished this previous season with MVP honors. During her college career, Wilson was a national player of the year and won an NCAA championship. One of the university's greatest athletes, perhaps the greatest athlete, Wilson now holds a permanent space in history that is represented publicly for women and girls to see.  

As Wilson beautifully connected the impact of her statue today in light of the past, "My grandmother, Hattie Rakes, grew up in this area, actually four blocks from the Governor's Mansion to be exact... When she was a child, she could not even walk on the grounds of the University of South Carolina. She would have to walk around the campus just to get where she needed to go. If only she were here today to see the same grounds she had to walk around [are] the same grounds [sic] that house a statue of her granddaughter.” 

"A'ja's statue makes me feel happy and hopeful as a woman and mother of two daughters. It is my hope that this symbol, placed so publicly in the epicenter of Columbia and the University of South Carolina, will make all on-lookers push the envelope and demand other such statues and monuments honoring talented women across our city, state and nation. It is also my hope these statues serve as constant reflections of those women (honored and unsung) who break, have broken, or will break barriers and glass ceilings.” 

- Dr. Traci Young Cooper, Columbia City of Women Committee Member and Director of Richland County School District One's Office of Extended Day Programs 


Columbia City of Women believes the places we know and love in our city should be a backdrop to tell the stories of great Columbia women. In early 2021, Columbia City of Women will share the stories of Columbia’s Black women leaders and all City of Women honorees with the unveiling of “The Architecture of Strength,” a monument by artist Deedee Morrison. Standing at the northwest corner of Main and Gervais streets, the intersection of government and commerce facing the South Carolina State House, this monument will confront South Carolina’s past and its white, male-dominated status quo.   

Of the 5,575 public art pieces representing historical figures in the United States, only 559 portray women, a mere 10% of all statues, according to the Smithsonian American Art Museum. On the grounds of the State House stand more than 30 monuments erected to recognize men, but not women in any meaningful way. 

An augmented reality project will accompany the public art to help those at the monument or at home to engage with the statue and the women it honors.  

Stay tuned to and @ColumbiaCityofWomen on Facebook and Instagram for more news on the monument, augmented reality app, and Columbia City of Women honorees. 

Photo Credit (far left): Image courtesy of the State Newspaper Photograph Archive, Richland Library. (Far right): A young Donella Wilson, 1930s. Image courtesy Minnie Wilson Bivens