Columbia City of Women Honoree
Mildred Weathers McDuffie
Mildred Weathers McDuffie, 1993. Image courtesy The State Newspaper Photograph Collection, Richland Library
Mildred Weathers was born in 1934 in Wedgefield, South Carolina, to Charlie James and Ethel Mae Byrd Weathers. Ethel Weathers brought her three daughters to Columbia by the early 1940s, where she found employment as a maid with Kohn & Company. Mildred Weathers attended Celia Dial Saxon Elementary School, which she later recalled as a largely positive experience. She regularly sang at PTA meetings, with Principal Creswell Madden calling her “his little Marian Anderson”—a huge compliment given Anderson’s national fame. However, Weathers also felt some class discrimination at school, with certain teachers indicating that, “If your parents were blue collar workers or a maid or whatever, that was not good.”
Weathers graduated from Booker T. Washington High School in 1953 and enrolled at Allen University. By then, the family was living at Allen-Benedict Court, a segregated public housing apartment community built in 1940 as a counterpart to the whites-only Gonzales Gardens complex. At the time, Allen-Benedict was a modern, safe, and tight-knit community that served as a stepping stone to a better life for many of the children who grew up there. To help her mother afford their apartment, Weathers took a job as a secretary for Allen’s athletic department while attending school. She majored in business and after graduating in 1957 took a clerical job at the Columbia Housing Authority. She ultimately left that position around 1960 for a teaching practicum at C.A. Johnson High School because “secretaries weren’t making anything,” and even with a college education she still made half the amount of money as the high school-educated white secretary. During this time she married Fred Owens McDuffie; they eventually had four children.
After teaching for several years at the Murden School in Crawfordville, Georgia, McDuffie returned to Columbia and taught at a series of segregated schools, including Booker T. Washington and Perrin-Thomas Elementary. In 1968, as Columbia’s public school system finally made an official plan to desegregate, McDuffie was one of just five teachers selected for a committee charged with facilitating communications between teachers and the central office. After Perrin-Thomas closed for good in 1971 following full integration, McDuffie taught at Horrell Hill Elementary and Carver Elementary before transitioning to into a district-level position ensuring Title I compliance at Richland One schools. In this role she coordinated educational workshops for low-income parents, providing them with the tools to help their children learn at home. In 1991 she briefly left this role to serve as assistant publisher for the Carolina Tribune, a Black-owned community newspaper. She was primarily responsible for ensuring the publication of the insert The Advancer, which was created by the Assault on Illiteracy Program (AIOP), a national organization that helped adult and out-of-school Black community members achieve literacy. McDuffie remained involved with the AIOP for several years as president and vice-president of local programs.
During her 34-year career with Richland One as an educator, parent consultant, and ombudsmen, she channeled lessons learned from her strong, female teachers at Booker T. Washington, including Fannie Phelps Adams and Elise Martin, in particular the need for parents to be involved with their children’s educations:
What I tell parents every day is that they can’t depend on the school to do what they have to do. The school builds on what children are taught at home. Home is not only first teacher but the continuing teacher. My mother is 87 years old and she still teaches me.
– Mildred Weathers McDuffie, The State, September 15, 1994
In 1994, McDuffie ran for first city and then county council, successfully winning a seat in the latter body. She retired from both Richland County Council and Richland One School District in 1998. She was then appointed a summary court judge in magistrate’s court in 2001, where she served for six years. In later retirement, Judge McDuffie returned to education, working as a relationship specialist at her alma mater, Allen University. As she recalled in 2010:
…my expertise is being used very well. Students, teachers, staff members tell me about the fact that they are so happy that I have made a difference on this campus, just having me hear and being able to know there is someone that they can go and talk to about their problems and sometimes it’s not school related. A lot of times people have personal problems that they need help with. And sometimes you need to talk about it to someone confidentially so that you can get it worked out in your mind.
Berman, Pat. “Parents, School Officials Join Call for Time with Kids,” The State (Columbia, SC), September 15, 1994.
Fogg, Tanya. “Two Former Residents Tribute to Public Housing,” The State (Columbia, SC), April 23, 1992.
McDuffie, Mildred, interview with Tom Crosby. Rosenwald Schools of South Carolina,
Department of Oral History, University of South Carolina. Accessed August 19, 2021:
“Schools Appoint Committee,” The Columbia Record (Columbia, SC), October 3, 1968.
The City of Columbia renamed this block of King Street in Mildred McDuffie’s honor in 2019. A teacher and administrator of Richland I for 34 years, McDuffie has consistently advocated for children who came from modest backgrounds like her own.