Columbia City of Women Honoree
Modjeska Monteith Simkins
On May 17, 1954, the US Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka struck down racial segregation in schools, effectively overturning the “separate but equal doctrine” codified in Plessy v. Ferguson nearly 60 years before. For Modjeska Monteith Simkins, who co-authored the petition that became Briggs v. Elliott, one of the five cases that comprised the Brown decision, the Supreme Court’s ruling was far from either the beginning or the end of a lifetime spent fighting for human rights. Over the course of her 92 years, she displayed a courage and perseverance that many argue was unmatched.
"An Advocate for the People."
— Modjeska Monteith Simkins
Modjeska Monteith was born in Columbia, S.C. on December 5, 1899, into a society that legally dispossessed women and people of color of their civil liberties. After graduating from Benedict College she taught at the segregated Booker T. Washington High School but was forced to resign after marrying Andrew W. Simkins in 1929. Rather than stay at home, she became the first Director of Negro Work for the South Carolina Tuberculosis Association (SCTA), where she witnessed the stark disparities in treatment and health education for black and white South Carolinians. She relentlessly advocated and fundraised for the association’s African American programs, growing the Negro Christmas Seal Sale income from $1,026 in 1931 to $14,179 just 11 years later.
"We hear a great deal about balancing budgets. Since we are not balancing our budget relative to tuberculosis among Negroes in South Carolina, how far are we 'in the red'?"
— Modjeska Monteith Simkins, 1935
Her time with the SCTA positioned her as an authority on the issues African Americans faced in South Carolina—namely discrimination in the form of unequal and even denied access to education, healthcare, economic opportunities, and the ballot. The supremacy of white culture and privilege, codified in Jim Crow laws and protected through widespread disenfranchisement of African American citizens, seemed insurmountable after the quashing of Columbia’s NAACP branch in the early 1920s. Her work with the SCTA, in particular, exposed the middle-class Simkins to the abject poverty and poor health of rural African Americans, a result of pervasive and systemic inequality. Simkins, in this instance and throughout her life, chose action over inaction and moral anger over despair.
By 1941, Simkins moved to organize African American resistance on a broad scale. That year she assumed the position of secretary of the South Carolina NAACP State Conference of Branches, an organization that was formed two years earlier when representatives from the state’s seven local branches met to coordinate their efforts. Simkins also convinced budding activist and newspaper publisher, John H. McCray, to move his Charleston Lighthouse to Columbia, a move she and her husband Andrew Simkins helped finance. The merger of McCray’s paper and the Sumter Informer in 1941 marked the emergence of a black press that continually advocated action over appeasement, even in the face of white pushback. The popularity of the Lighthouse and Informer in South Carolina’s African American community helped mobilize support for NAACP efforts and kept citizens informed of ongoing injustices in communities across the state. Simkins and McCray were the driving forces—financial and editorial—behind the paper until its closure in 1954.
Simkins, firmly established in the leadership of the NAACP, joined with other activists to challenge South Carolina’s continued flouting of established law. Key cases included the fight for equal pay for black teachers (Duval v. Seigneus and Thompson v. Gibbes et al.), the fight to end the all-white Democratic primary in South Carolina (Elmore v. Rice), the fight to end segregation in intrastate transportation (Flemming v. SCE&G) and the fight to end segregation in public schools (Briggs v. Elliott). Thurgood Marshall argued the latter, and often stayed with Simkins while in South Carolina prepping for this trial and others.
The early civil rights movement in South Carolina was more than court cases and an active black press. Simkins spent the late 1940s and early 1950s fundraising to establish the first-rate Good Samaritan Waverly Hospital hospital in Columbia for African Americans, which was dedicated in 1952. Simkins was also particularly interested in coalition building with outside organizations, both black and white. This was exemplified by her work as a senior advisor with the Southern Negro Youth Congress (SNYC)—a youth branch of the National Negro Congress formed in 1937, which focused on economic and political equality, international solidarity with oppressed peoples around the world, and ending racial violence and police brutality. The peak of the Congress’s activity and influence was its Southern Youth Legislature Conference held in downtown Columbia in 1946. The three-day event brought together students, labor activists, and internationally renowned orators including W.E.B. DuBois and Paul Robeson, and would become a source of inspiration for activists in the decades to come. Simkins, along with John Henry McCray and others, was instrumental in planning the conference.
"Then when the power structure stepped down on the necks of the signers and on Negroes generally in those areas, denying them of certain opportunities and privileges and conveniences, any kindnesses, for instance, like liens and lending money on short term and all like that, then we entered into a situation where we actually needed some relief for these people."
— Modjeska Monteith Simkins, July 28, 1976
The aspect of this story that is rarely told is the reaction of white citizens against South Carolina communities and individuals fighting for these rights. Columbian George Elmore lost his business and home. The petitioners in Briggs v. Elliott faced “economic terrorism” and actual acts of terror—Rev. Delaine’s home and church were burned, and he later fled South Carolina, never to return. John H. McCray spent two months on a chain gang after being convicted of libel in 1950 in the lead up to the Brown v. Board decision. Here again, Simkins emerged relatively unscathed and her family’s stake in Victory Savings Bank allowed Simkins to provide financial assistance to others in the movement. Simkins’ husband, Andrew, maintained a diversified real estate portfolio in Columbia that catered to African Americans, and Simkins later operated Motel Simbeth, which appeared in the Negro Traveler's Green Book. Differences with other organizers over tactics ultimately forced Simkins out of the NAACP. Her relationship with the SNYC and other left-wing groups with rumored ties to the Communist Party led to her name appearing in memos to the House Un-American Activities Committee.
"We CANNOT be bought and we WILL NOT be sold."
— Richland County Citizens Committee
Unphased, in 1955 she founded and led the Richland County Citizens Committee, which advocated for the desegregation of the state hospital and against all levels of corruption in what she always called “the power structure.” She later worked to advance women’s rights and helped lead the Grass Roots Organization Workshop (G.R.O.W.). In campaign materials created for an unsuccessful run for Columbia City Council in 1983, she called out the status quo of race and gender relations, contending that “over one-half of all Columbians are women and over one-third of them are black, yet Columbia’s political decisions have always been made by white men.” For all her contributions, Simkins only received broad recognition of her work towards the end of her life, although today she is often considered South Carolina’s foremost human rights activist. Modjeska Monteith Simkins died on April 5, 1992.