photo of Edna Smith Primus View All Honorees
Columbia City of Women Honoree

Edna Smith Primus

The State Newspaper Photograph Collection, Richland Library

It’s hard for black people to be inspired when they are poor. They never have had the opportunity to get ahead—they’re always behind. "

-Edna Smith Primus, March 20, 1973 

On March 20, 1973, The State profiled Edna Louise Smith, one of Columbia’s newest attorneys. At the time, she was teaching law-oriented courses, including one that focused on consumer protections, at Allen University. According to Smith, “Poor people are always being cheated by finance companies—consumer laws can be helpful.” She tasked her students with researching cases, such as replacing a television that broke under warranty, for welfare recipients. She also taught remedial English classes for free. Smith, who was born June 27, 1944 in the poverty-stricken town of Yemassee, Beaufort County, was one of seven children raised by Hattie Walker Smith, a sharecropper. According to Smith, she was fortunate to “have people who believed in me,” which gave her the opportunity to attend Mather Academy, an all-black private school in Camden. Unlike most of the black community in Yemassee, she had a chance to escape poverty. She then dedicated her life to helping others do the same.

Smith enrolled at the University of South Carolina in the early 1960s—following Henrie Monteith who broke the color line in 1963—and graduated with a bachelor of arts in political science in 1966. Her first job was with the South Carolina Council for Human Relations. She entered law school just a year after I.S. Leevy Johnson became the school’s first African American graduate. She later recalled the experience as a “frightening” one that she kept from her family in case she wasn’t able to finish. She did, and in 1972, she achieved her own “firsts”: first female African American graduate, and first woman to pass the bar exam created under the new South Carolina State Bar organization.  

Then Edna Smith at Allen University
Smith working as an instructor at Allen University, March 1, 1973. Image courtesy The State Newspaper Photograph Collection, Richland Library

A few months later, after The State highlighted her burgeoning career, Smith became involved in a case that changed her life—and the law. Court filings reveal that in July 1973, Smith, as a representative of the South Carolina Council on Human Relations, was asked to speak to a group of impoverished women who had been coerced into sterilization procedures by their doctors in Aiken County. At the time, she was working at Carolina Community Law Firm and as a legal consultant for the council. She was also the vice president of ACLU SC. After meeting with the group and informing them of their legal rights, Smith offered the ACLU’s services for free.

A letter written by Smith that extended this offer ended up in the hands of South Carolina’s attorney general, who was serving as counsel to one of the defendants. He attempted to have the cases dismissed on the grounds that they were solicited. One doctor, Clovis Pierce, then submitted the letter to the South Carolina State Bar, claiming Smith solicited for personal gain. The Board of Grievances agreed, and, in 1976, it privately reprimanded Smith for soliciting on the behalf of the ACLU.

Smith requested a review, in part because the reprimand had repercussions for how the organization could work with clients moving forward. In 1977, the South Carolina Supreme Court escalated disciplinary action, “conclud[ing] that the facts and circumstances are sufficiently aggravated to justify a public, instead of a private, reprimand.” Smith’s reputation suffered. Whereas she was once known as the first black female graduate of USC’s School of Law, she was now just another “ambulance chaser.” Smith and her attorneys did not back down. They appealed, and the case received national attention when the US Supreme Court heard it the following year; according to an ACLU spokesman, if the recently married Primus lost her case, “it could drastically curtail the activities of the ACLU and other public interest organizations which represent poor and minority groups.” In re Primus, which the court decided in her favor, was a major win. Moreover, it became a case that educated future generations of lawyers. According to USC School of Law Dean Robert Wilcox, the case “has been taught in every professional responsibility course in the United States” since the ruling.

As the case worked its way through the courts, Primus formed the firm Buhl, Primus, and Bagby with Herbert E. Buhl III and Carlton B. Bagby. In 1981, Edna Primus was hired as the managing attorney for Palmetto Legal Services, where she remained until her retirement in 2010. Her work at the legal aid organization aligned exactly with the career goals she set back in 1973:  

I don’t want to charge people exorbitant fees. I can get along on a set salary. I have no big aspirations—I don’t care about being a judge or moving up the ladder of success. I want to help black people know what the law is; basically I just want to help people. 
- Edna Smith Primus

The attorneys who worked under Primus at legal services remember her giving spirit. She was always the one who brought food, who set up the conference room and cleaned it up after meetings, who encouraged attorneys to take simple cases and make them more impactful. Most importantly, according to attorney Sue Berkowitz, Primus reminded her colleagues to “not just be a lawyer and forget the other parts.” Primus helped her colleagues embrace the mentality that each client had other difficulties in their life and fixing their legal problems wouldn’t solve them. This is why, for Primus, connecting them to services, such as food vouchers, a place to stay at night or free childcare, was just as important as helping them fight an eviction. She extended this work beyond the work week. Her daughter, LaCelle, recalled sitting with Primus at both the YMCA or YWCA and connecting visitors with these same resources. Primus also hosted clinics outside work and offered legal advice to women housed at the correctional facility on Farrow Road. 

A brochure produced by Palmetto Legal Services, 1980s
A brochure produced by Palmetto Legal Services, 1980s. Image courtesy South Caroliniana Library, University of South Carolina, Columbia

In addition to her work, Primus devoted herself to her family and her community. She was actively involved in her daughter’s schools and as a trustee at Greater St. Luke Baptist Church, a role she continued after her retirement. Few knew of the role Primus played in shaping legal history as the case was never something she discussed with family or colleagues. Those close to her remember her as quiet, but powerful; giving, but never taking; and above all, humble. Edna Smith Primus died in 2019.

SHE DID, so that we all have the freedom of choice and speech.

Want to learn more about Edna Smith Primus? Connect with a historian at Historic Columbia.

Interested in advancing the health, economic well-being, and rights of South Carolina's women, girls, and their families? Check out what's going on at WREN.

2016 ½ Greene Street
ACLU SC and Buhl, Primus, and Bagby

This commercial structure, originally built in 1948 and largely rebuilt in the 1990s, was the office of the American Civil Liberties Union South Carolina (ACLU SC) in the early 1970s, when Edna Smith was reprimanded for soliciting clients on their behalf. After being cleared of wrongdoing, the recently married Edna Smith Primus became a partner in Buhl, Primus, and Bagley, which took over the ACLU SC’s office space in 1978.

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Celebrating 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 solicitatio. She appealed to the US Supreme Court and won; In re Primus remains a landmark case that is still taught today.
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