Interviewee: Modjeska Montieth Simkins
Interviewer: Constance Ashton Myers
Date: June 10-11, 1977
At the time of the state IWY conference, Modjeska Monteith Simkins was 78-years-old and living in Columbia, South Carolina. She attended the conference because she believed it was significant and could call attention to women’s issues. Simkins, an African-American woman, argued that black women had been “doubly victimized” because of their sex and their race. In this extensive interview, she discussed her family history as well as her own work with of public health reform, social movements, and the Civil Rights movement in South Carolina. The interview also includes discussion of her education, her experience at Columbia University in New York City, and her work with the NAACP in South Carolina, her perspective on the IWY conferences and how she believed many women were not aware of discrimination against them. In 1977, Simkins was a manager at the Victory Savings Bank in Columbia, South Carolina.
Constance Ashton Myers: Your name then is?
Modjeska Monteith Simkins: M-o-d-j-e-s-k-a. Modjeska Simkins. S-i-m-k-i-n-s.
CM: Why did you think it was—this meeting—significant and important? Why, to you, is this meeting significant?
MS: Well, in the first place, I think it’s significant because women have been disadvantaged throughout our history—and throughout world history, for that matter—and I particularly, as a black woman, have been doubly victimized by the fact that I am a woman and I am black. And I know that although what we might call the male element in our government, and generally in the population, has always said that they revere women—they respect women and they want to take care of women and all like that—women have been disadvantaged in our society.
That’s the reason I am interested in anything that advances the welfare of the masses of people, but particularly, I know that women have been victimized because of their sex all through history, and even in this country—where we say that we are the most outstanding country, most progressive country, and “In God We Trust” is on every coin that we steel—do not respect the fact that Christ himself was a founder in the elevation of women in the world. We still have a long way to go in that connection.
We can’t talk anything in this country without bringing in the fact of race. I have seen and heard white men say they protect their women, and yet I’ve seen white women paid different salaries, even in cotton mills, because they were women. And wherever they were, wherever they were, they were categorized by salaries or income by the simple fact that they were women, even though they might have been heads of families and had the same responsibilities of rearing the children that the head of the family would have had if it had been a man. So there was no reason why a woman, doing the same job and being the head of a family, also by act of circumstance, should not have been paid the same wage. And so I have seen that—.
MS: —and as a black woman I have seen it. As a teacher in the Columbia city schools, I have seen white teachers teaching the same classes that I was teaching in line with me getting checks cashed at the banks, getting exactly twice as much as I was getting.
MS: Although some of them had not been to outstanding out-of-state colleges that I was forced into because the tax pool that colleges that I was helping support did not admit black people, so therefore—. It has been a long history of—experience—with me to observe these disadvantages: not only because I was a woman, because also, I had the accident of being born black.
CM: And Ms. Simpkins, you have magnificently overcome these handicaps. You have—not an average woman at all. This is how you are able to look at this situation and give it an overview. Tell a little bit about your life for this IWY permanent historical record.
MS: I was born in Columbia, South Carolina, December 5th, 1899. My mother was a teacher prior to my birth—I was the oldest of a family of eight children. My father was an outstanding brick mason—or brick layer—in those days so that our family was above the average in income. Because we lived in the rural area, we had to go to—. Well, we first were put in private school—in Benedict College when that college had classes from the primary, so-to-speak[?], up through college.
CM: Oh, did it?
CM: It was like Paine College in Augusta.
MS: So the first day I went to school, I went in Benedict College and then I finished college—the last day I went to undergraduate work—I was at Benedict College, so that all through—. And at that time, the school was in [the] charge of northerners—sometimes called Yankees—that came down after the Civil War to help educate the freedmen and the children of freedmen.
CM: Were your parents from the Columbia area too?
MS: They were both born in Columbia.
CM: Were they? And what about their parents?
MS: My mother’s father—as far as we know—was born in Athens, Georgia. He came to Columbia—. I don’t know how he met my grandmother. My grandmother—being my mother’s mother—was born in Sumter County, South Carolina. And I always heard my mother say that she was in some way a descendent of the colony of Church —a remnant of which still lives in Sumter County.
MS: She was a striking lady—a beautiful woman, a striking facial expression—so that there are—. I’m sorry that her picture has been destroyed, but she had the mark of—what we might call—a foreigner.
MS: So I don’t know how she met my grandfather. My grandfather was a driver and caretaker of horses for the American Express Company of that day. He was supposed to be especially good with horses and knew a remedy for lockjaw, which he never disclosed to anyone. And to know how to treat lockjaw in those days was important because horses often contracted it from going in alleys and driveways and stepping on nails because the streets weren’t paved at that time. So he could cure lockjaw, but he never gave that secret to anyone. Of course, today we have tetanus shots that take care of animals, so it wouldn’t be very important, but be a historical fact to note.
CM: Uh-huh. Yes.
MS: And my mother’s mother belonged to a family of Seals that lived in Sumter County.
CM: And how was that spelled?
MS: I should imagine S-E-A-L-S.
MS: They owned my grandmother on my—my great-grandmother on my mother’s side. And she, evidently, was a dark woman—very dark—and lived in the quarters. And my mother’s mother whom I have just described—.
MS: —was very bright and lived at the master’s house. And on this occasion—she was very devoted to her mother who lived in the quarters—she went to see her. This particular night, she slipped in the quarters to see her mother, was found out by the mistress of the plantation, and she had a flog the next morning.
MS: And I’ve heard my mother—. My mother told us this because I know her mother has told her. She was flogged the next morning: the mistress asked that she be stripped and whipped, which she was. Then she determined that she was going to run away, and she did run away and start walking toward Columbia. On the way to Columbia, she saw some people far down the road, and she dashed in the bushes, but one or two of the men saw her. And they called her out and asked her where she was going and her reason for running, and she said she was going to Columbia to her grandmother, which would have been my great, great-grandmother.
MS: And they said, “Well, you get right out in the road and walk anywhere you want and go to Columbia; you are as free as we are.” They were some of the soldiers of the Northern Army.
MS: She didn’t know then that she was free, so evidently, these people hadn’t told their slaves that they had been emancipated because she was running away from the situation that was and always had been—. My mother told me that very often, when she was a young girl, this old Mrs. Seals would come to their home. She evidently lived in Columbia, would come over to Columbia. But she said many a time they had—several times, rather—she’d been to their home and had eaten at their home. I don’t mean that she was homeless or that maybe she didn’t have something to eat, but she has actually eaten at my mother’s mother’s home. And that often, they heard her—Mrs. Seals—tell her former mistress, “Sarah, I never thought it would come to a thing like this, that this day would come.” Meaning, that she would be eating in a Negro’s house and by the hands and kindness of a former slave that she had treated as she had.
MS: So she was—I imagine she’d had a change of heart, or certainly it seemed things turned in a way she never expected they would.
CM: Well, with this current interest in Alex Haley’s production, I suppose it makes you think more on these things and realize that you too have a story.
MS: Well, that’s about—. You know, we could hardly go back more than two generations. My father’s—. My father was born in Columbia. A daughter of a former slave of the Wade Hampton family—.
MS: Where my mother’s mother was very fair, my father’s mother was very black.
MS: And he was fathered by the man of the home where she was hired as a nurse—a nursemaid. Therefore my father—. I mean, he, as the old folks say, took advantage of her as a young girl working in the home, so my father was born a beautiful brown—or a mulatto—and he carried his father’s name.
MS: Which was, uh, one of the—was the Monteith name. That’s where my maiden name Monteith come from.
CM: You were Modjeska Monteith?
CM: How did you get the name Modjeska?
MS: My mother’s baby sister gave me that name. At the time that I was born, there was a popular actress—Polish actress—by the name of Helena Modjeska. And she burdened my with that name which I’ve had to spell possibly a half million times.
CM: It’s distinctive.
MS: It is distinctive, but it’s been burdensome because I’ve had to spell it. (Laughs)
MS: —so many times. I had to spell Modjeska and Monteith and when I married I had to spell Simkins because one Simkins—Wayne—. One Simkins family in Columbia spelled with S-i-m-p-k-i-n-s, but the H. Peter Simkins, who are connected with the old white families of Edgefield, spell their name S-i-m-k-i-n-s.
CM: Yes, yes. Your husband is of the Edgefield Simkins?
MS: So then my father’s father was an outstanding attorney of that day in Columbia. As I said, he took the name of his white father, and I have seen him come down to our home from time to time to visit us when we were children. He didn’t hide the fact that he was my father’s father although he had a white family—what you might call a legal white family.
CM: Say that again.
MS: He did not disregard or disown my father. He came to our home—.
CM: But you used a term about white families—.
MS: Well he was married and had children in what we would call a legal marriage.
CM: Legal. I see. You used the word legal.
CM: That’s what I didn’t understand.
MS: What I meant by—. He was married to a white woman and had white children by this white woman when he had my father by this incident that I told you awhile ago. He also had a daughter by another colored woman in the city who became noted as a teacher and lived closed to (unintelligible at 13:55) in Jacksonville. He didn’t disown these black offspring. We admired him for that, although I’m not proud to say that things came about that way.
CM: Uh-Huh. Tell a little bit too about your schooling now. Did you say you went to Benedict from primary to—.
MS: From primary through college, and the same was true of two others of the children. My brother—. Well, my mother’s second child died as an infant. And then the third child finished—went through—Benedict just like I did from primary through college, and the fourth child—who was my brother Doctor Monteith here in Columbia who is president of Victory Savings Bank—also went through there from the first grade through college. And then after that, the other children started there, but eventually went to city schools. We were living earlier in the country—in the rural area—where you couldn’t come into the city to go to school; we had to go to the rural schools. And they continued to send us to private schools because they wanted us to have exceptional educational advantages given by the teachers at Benedict College whom I told you were Northerners—many of whom worked for nothing for years because they came down to serve in training the freedmen and their children.
MS: And their offspring, I should say. So for that reason, at least five of our children started in private schools and had very exceptional education for the day. The schools in the area where we moved when we went to the rural area—. My father decided—because he never lost the sting of how he came about—.
MS: At that time, the only kind of work that Negro woman and girls could get was in white homes as cooks or nursemaids or laundresses, and he said, “I’m going to take my children out away from Columbia where they can learn how to work because I never want to see any of my girls working in a white home.” He never lost that, and he never felt quite right. Told his mother all that—. Although, she—being the kind of woman that I came to know her to be as my grandmother—she evidently was taken advantage of.
MS: Because—. So—. But he never quite forgave her. But he moved us to the country.
CM: Right outside of Columbia?
MS: Oh, about five miles out.
CM: Uh-huh. Which direction was that?
MS: North Columbia on highway—. What’s the highway? Twenty-one?
MS: And so the schools—. When we moved into that area—around 1906 or ’07—the schools there were three- and four-month schools, so we wouldn’t have had the advantages that they wanted us to have. And so we were sent into the city each morning.
CM: What was your major in college?
MS: You didn’t have majors in colleges where those Yankees were. You learned everything that they put down on that schedule for you to learn.
CM: What kind of a curriculum was it?
MS: Their fine curriculum—and very thorough—. We had classes in—well, just like they had in other schools—arithmetic, geography, English, music, [and] writing. We even had a regular period of—where they taught us—penmanship. As I say, this kind of scratching we have today which looks like a rooster jumped in some ink and jumped up to crow—.
MS: The people just don’t write today. I mean, where I work—. Working at a bank each day, I see people that you can hardly tell their names. Sometimes I say, “What is this on the back of this check?” They’ll say, “That’s my name.”
MS: I say, “Well, I can’t tell just by looking at it.” They say—. But people just don’t write; they don’t spell. We had—. Oh yes, we had a class—actual classes—in spelling. Then we had to go to chapel every day. Each one had to own a testament, and we read Bible in Chapel.
CM: Is Benedict Methodist affiliated or—?
MS: Baptist affiliated.
MS: So when we got into the higher classes, of course, we had algebra and history—modern and ancient or medieval, whatever the situation might be—and we had philosophy and ethics as we got on into college. You know? Higher mathematics—. They were the same type of thing.
CM: Did Benedict move right from the high school curriculum into a college curriculum?
MS: Well, they had it all the time.
MS: But you could move yourself.
CM: That’s what I mean. You moved from the one to the other?
CM: But really you began with the primary grades?
MS: They— (loudspeaker in background at 19:15). They were—. They were dedicated to seeing that children learned the fundamentals, you know? Your basic training was always foremost in their thinking.
CM: How many young people proceeded with you on this path through the high school grades and the college years at Benedict? How many in your class?
MS: Well, we were the only ones that actually started there and went all the way through. There were a number of—. What they called the training school at Benedict, at that time, was a very large school because so many people wanted their children to have the advantages of this period-type of basic education. Many of them perhaps went no further than, say, eighth or ninth grade or if they went to what we call high school now—what we called L.I.—. See at that time, you could teach in the schools of South Carolina by having what they called an L.I. degree—a Licensure of Instruction, which would correspond perhaps with sophomore college now.
CM: Uh-huh. Associate of Arts?
MS: Something like that, you see? But they—people—who finished at that period and that day and were permitted to teach were superior in their training. They were in far better position to teach than many who finish college today. When you find people who finish college and can’t read and finish high school and can’t read, you—. They had no apologies for seeing that you got your lessons every day. What they assigned, you got today. You didn’t say, well, you didn’t have that so good today, but I want you to have it by tomorrow. There was no tomorrow.
CM: Did Benedict, even in the college-level years, still—. Was it still under the control of northern benefaction—?
MS: Well, up until—.
CM: —and instruction?
MS: Up until I had finished, there were the—. Even until now, large amounts of funds go into the school. The American Baptist Home Missionary Society was the greatest benefactor—I mean, greatest giver—in those days, but the teachers largely came from the North. And as I remember them, I revere their memories because many of them had dedicated their lives to this purpose and many of them never—. Well, some of them, perhaps widows whose husbands had left them in a position so that they could give their services—.
MS: They could live well in their homes wherever they were, but they came down and taught for years—some of them for nothing. I don’t think they lived on nothing because they may have had incomes from their husbands—being widows or something like that. Many of the men did the same, so that they gave us a superior type—. They gave us a type of training that you just don’t get today because they were dedicated to seeing that you got your work, and there was a certain stamp of culture that was required before you just made the mark. When I said in their idea of whether they had done a good job on you or not, they wouldn’t have tolerated one second the type of parents that we see in all these schools today.
MS: You see? They wouldn’t have accepted the boys’ structure of the posture—. I mean, it was just the case when—. The best way I can express it would be that it was a polishing process, and every day you got a little brighter.
CM: They were making young ladies and gentlemen.
MS: That’s it. And there was something that differentiated the college-bred man or woman from the person who hadn’t had the opportunity, but you don’t see that as a general rule today.
CM: (Both laugh) When you emerged with your degree from Benedict—and I suppose it was a Bachelor of Arts degree?
MS: Yes, it was.
CM: Did you then begin to teach or did you go to graduate school immediately?
MS: No, I taught at Benedict one year.
CM: Did you? What did you teach at Benedict?
MS: I taught medieval history and taught in the teacher training department.
MS: And something else that I don’t remember, but I do remember I taught medieval history. And then I left there and went into Columbia city schools. They were supposed, [at] that time, to be the most outstanding system in the state, and still are highly recognized. So I went there and—for a year because they didn’t have a position opened—I taught in the elementary school: the sixth grade. And as soon as they had an opening, I was transferred in the department of mathematics; I taught in that department until I married.
In schools here—as in schools elsewhere—. In many instances in that day, when you got married, you lost your job. So I married, and when I went back—. I married on the twenty-ninth—the twenty-seventh I think it was—of December, and when I returned to work after the Christmas holidays, they told me that they understood that I was married and that I would have to give up my job.
CM: What year was that?
MS: That was in 1929.
MS: So that was—. Then I—.
CM: What did your husband do?
MS: My husband was a businessman. He was in real estate and ran a service station here.
CM: When were you able to get back to teaching?
MS: Well, I didn’t ever really go back to actual teaching in what we call the educational setup of the state, but I went to work after that. In 1932, I went to work with the South Carolina Tuberculosis Association as the director of Negro work. During my teaching experience at Booker Washington High School where I had taught mathematics—.
CM: That was before you had to leave in ’29?
MS: That was before I had to leave.
MS: I had taken additional training. There was an outstanding teacher of mathematics at Morehouse College. I went over there one summer and took some courses under him.
CM: In mathematics?
MS: Yes. Then I went to Columbia University, but I didn’t take mathematics there because my superintendent told me that he was satisfied with my work. He also told me I was the best teacher of beginners’ algebra that he had ever seen. So he gave me permission to take other courses if I wanted to. So at Columbia I took a course in feature writing and short story and something else because somehow or other I decided I wanted to learn some more about that type of thing. No reason that I know of myself, but I took that, and after, it came in good stead because I have done a deal of newspaper work.
CM: Did you stay at Columbia University in New York very long?
MS: No. [I] took summer courses.
CM: What was your view of New York coming from a medium-sized community in the Deep South?
MS: I had no shocking experience with that because I had an exceptional experience in my home where we didn’t highlight the color question. We were taught to respect people because they’re people. Because when we moved in the rural area, most of the people couldn’t read or write and there was a lot of disease—like cholera, typhoid, and malaria—in those days. My mother journeyed many nights after we worked in the fields to see the sick, so I didn’t have that experience. And then being in the school situation that I was where they taught us to respect the dignity of human beings, I just didn’t get that. I was brought up in an atmosphere of service in the home, and my mother said if you are blessed to be able to do something, you—well, then—.
(Recording pauses briefly at 27:55. Returns at 28:00)
MS: I had no shock there.
CM: Yes. Was the attitude toward growing young men and women in your home a fairly traditional attitude: you would rise to a paying profession that you would set aside on assuming the duties of marriage and motherhood? Was this expected?
MS: No. No, it wasn’t that; there was nothing like that.
MS: My mother was a very strong person—strong willed—and my father was a very good, hard-working man. I was just thinking about my father yesterday. I never remember him spanking or severely scolding me except once. I was washing dishes—and they taught me to wash dishes very early. In those days, soaps and things came in wooden boxes, and I was put upon a box, turned bottom up, so that I could reach the dish pan. And so he came one day and I had put the spoons—that is what we called the silverware—in the pan, and he found that I had put a knife in there. He was so excited, he said, “Why would you put a knife in the pan? Are you so foolish? Don’t you know you would cut your hand on that?” So he took it out, and that’s the main scolding that I ever remember he did to me. And I never remembered him—.
CM: Who was the disciplinarian then?
MS: —disciplining me. Well, my mother. My mother was because, as I said, my father was a builder, and he was often out of the city, building around through the south as foreman on construction jobs.
CM: Well your mother had quite a load on her shoulders. Didn’t you say eight children?
MS: Well, she didn’t ever have eight at a time.
MS: But she was able to take care of it between switches and paddles and straps [both laugh]. She thought that your lower anatomy—your nether parts—were for more than sitting on, I’ll tell you that. So. (Laughs) But she took this position that “I’ve lived my life before you. I’ve taught you all I can tell you. Now you’re on your own, and I expect the best of you.” Now that’s the way she did it.
CM: Ms. Simkins, was most of your career, then, spent in the city of Columbia?
MS: Yes, I would say that.
CM: And how would you evaluate it? I mean—. No, I don’t want an evaluation. I want you to give me a kind of a synopsis of what you’ve accomplished from the time you entered the public sphere after you marriage to today.
MS: I don’t know just when I would say that I entered the public sphere so to speak. You mean spearheading in the public, I guess?
CM: Well, either in the community or volunteer or civic work, or as a paid professional—whatever. As an occupation other than housewifery and motherhood, which are, of course, occupations in and of themselves.
MS: I—. You mean whether significant changes or something like that? I didn’t quite understand. I don’t quite understand that.
CM: What did you do after you were married? I mean what civic work did you engage in?
MS: Oh, I was working with NAACP. I worked with—. Well, it was after I married. As I told you, I went to work with the TB Association, and they sent me away on two scholarships. One to Michigan State College at East Lansing which is forty miles east of Detroit, and then about three or four years later, they sent me up to the University of Michigan where I took courses in health education.
MS: I had charge of the health education program in the schools of South Carolina—meaning of course, at that time, the Negro schools. We had to work a course of study. I set up the program in health education for teachers because at that time—so far as health teaching was concerned—we were about at the bottom or maybe under the bottom of schools. There were no safe drinking preserves in the schools, no lunches, no hand-washing facilities, no sanitary protection from the standpoint of privies—as they were called—outhouses—and so those fundamental things we had to—. The importance of those things we had to impress upon, not only the children in the schools and their mothers, but we went before midwifery groups and ministers groups and teachers groups. Wherever we could get a group of people, we preached this doctrine and vaccination. We’d reach the people where they were with various types of instruction—film slides and things like that. I did that work until 1942.
MS: So while I wasn’t teaching in the formal educational set up, that was that type of teaching that I was doing and the teaching that I had done. In that time, too, I taught at the teacher’s summer schools; they had those through the state in many areas where you just now may go to. They say the (unintelligible at 34:24) or the University of South Carolina—something like that—summer schools. They had summer schools spotted all over the state.
CM: Did they hold them in the high schools? Where did they hold them?
MS: Well, they might hold them in the high school buildings, but they were held for teachers in service.
MS: You know?
MS: And some of those Negro teachers at that time had not gone any further than the eighth grade and maybe ninth grade. They might have been the daughter of some tenant farmer, and the old man that owned the plantation would say, “Well, Old Jack is a good nigger, and he’s got a gal that’s been through eighth grade. I think she can teach.” So he might give her the job teaching in the black school.
CM: So you went from town to town doing the summer time, did you?
MS: I didn’t go from town to town. I may teach in the summer school in Allendale this time—that summer school runs six weeks—and the person in charge of summer school might say, “Well, would you feel like working in the Greenville summer school?” Then the second term, I might go there. That type of teaching wasn’t in the formal educational set up, but that was teaching experience, and the benefit of my former teaching experience aided me at that time.
Then after 1942, my work became more pronounced with the NAACP because we were mapping the federal cases against transportation. During the time that I’m telling you—all the time up until now—we hear a lot about the busing of children, but white children were bused, black children weren’t.
MS: My mother—I’ve often heard her say that they would ride the bus behind where the roads weren’t paved in those days. If they’d see a puddle, sometime the bus driver would hit the puddle and splash mud and water on the black children walking to school or spit out of the window at them. And they would be hauled past the inferior Negro schools over to the white school that was still inferior by national standards, but so much better than ours. They didn’t realize they were going to inferior schools until [the] First World War when they had so many defects even among white youth. You know?
CM: Was your first interest in the NAACP with improving black education?
MS: No. The NAACP as we know it today was predated by an organization called the Niagara Movement which was also organized—in part—by Du Bois. He was the leading spirit in—.
MS: —both of these organizations.
CM: But I was wondering if your interest—if you were led to that because of your special concern for the school situation?
MS: No. No, it wasn’t that. It started with my mother and father. My father was a fearless man. In those days, Negro men were supposed to cringe when a white man said a certain thing to him, but he was fearless; he would fight like a tiger. I’ve never known him to fight but once. They knew he would fight. He always had his chisels and brick hammers and things with him in his tool bag, so he never was really attacked, but they knew he was fearless. What’d they call him? He was a mean nigger.
My mother was fearless, and my father kept guns in the home all the time. On Sunday morning, when most people getting ready, dressing to go to church, he would be polishing his guns. And he always packed his own shells. Where you buy a cartridge today for your shotguns, he’d buy his shot and wadding and powder, and he’d pack his shells. A bird shot or buck shot according to what he was going to use his guns for, but we always had rifles and guns—a bale of them. And my mother knew how to use those, so if anybody came up to our house in a rural area—they just should not have come if they weren’t expected. You understand?
MS: When I was quite a little girl, my mother put me in what they called a membership, and got me interested in what she was—. She would talk to me about the Niagara Movement, although I was very small. But being taught in the school where I was, I could catch on to a lot of things above the average. And then she’d show me the book that was printed by the Niagara Movement. I can’t remember, but I think [it] was called The Outlook or something like that. She’d show me these books where these people down in the Belgian Congo wouldn’t dig, but if they didn’t dig so much gold ore in a day—or something like that—they might have a finger cut off. Maybe you’ve seen those pictures. So I was less than eight years of age when I was put in the Niagara Movement.
MS: And you see NAACP was organized in 1909.
CM: So actually, you were in it right along.
CM: It wasn’t a matter of your just joining the causes. (Speaking at same time at 39:34)… interest in them.
MS: Yeah. It’s just like my interest in unions as unions used to be—. You see, a lot of unions now are collaborating with the management, but in those days, unions were unions. I’ve seen my daddy put his breechload[er] on his shoulder and go to union meeting, so I say I lurched unionism with my mother’s milk. I know this thing you were talking about with my mother’s milk.
MS: It was just there, you know?
CM: But you became active after a certain date—more active.
MS: I became active—more active—when the Columbia branch was organized in 1916 or ’17.
CM: Where there any reprisals against—?
MS: No. Not at that time. You see we started the NAACP state conference in 1940 for the purpose of striking down the white primary. There were no reprisals against me then. I can’t say that I’ve ever really had any great suffering from being in the movement, although I was in the (unintelligible at 40:37) of it when it was really hot. I did have my properties fired into once or twice when my sister ran the case against the University of South Carolina.
CM: In doing what? I didn’t understand.
MS: My sister ran the suit against the university to open the university. She’s now dead; she died of cancer several years ago.
CM: Tell about that.
MS: Well, I was just a kid. I think she realized how ill she was, but she didn’t tell us. I remember she said if it was the last thing she did—. We worked very closely in the civil rights movement, and I remember her saying, “That if it’s the last thing I do, I’m going to open that university.” So she opened suit against the university, and we were successful in that suit.
CM: What year was that?
MS: Oh, I don’t know. [It] must have been about ’65, I guess somewhere in there.
So then, as I said, the branch’s opening night was organized here in 1917, I think it was. That would have made me just about eighteen years of age, and [I] went to branch meetings. Now at the state conference in 1940, I was made assistant secretary and the next year made secretary. For fifteen years, I was state secretary of NAACP and helped to map all of the federal cases that we had. You know we took several of those cases up to the United States Supreme Court. What was done on this end was mapped in my home because [attorneys?], as Thurgood Marshall knows, couldn’t stay in white hotels at that time, so they had to stay in homes of blacks. Those lawyers stayed in my home, and most of those cases were—. But that is what we did on this end. What we had to contribute legally on this end was worked out right in my home.
CM: Where’s that, Ms. Simkins?
MS: At 2025 Marion Street in Columbia.
CM: Same house as you’ve lived in for many, many years.
MS: I’ve lived there since 1932. So for fifteen years I worked in that, and that carried me up to about 1955. In 1955, they started asking me to come into the Victory Savings Bank as a public relations person. I had been freelancing so long, just doing what I wanted to do, that I didn’t feel like being tied down to a job, but eventually they issued an ultimatum: either I’d come in if I were going to work by a certain time, or it was—. Well, my brother was president of the bank, and he wasn’t so well, and my mother was interested—. He’s old and [devilish?] now. But anyway, I went in and that’s where I’ve been ever since. In the meantime, we built a very nice little hospital here for blacks. Blacks still couldn’t go to the public, tax-supported hospitals. They eventually built a separate unit for them at the county hospital, but they still didn’t allow black physicians to follow their patients in the instance. My brother was the first one they let go in with his patients.
CM: Your brother, then, was a physician?
MS: Yes, he—.
CM: Where was he trained?
MS: If [a] patient had a black doctor and had to go to the hospital, when they got to the hospital, they had to either go under the staff physician or get a white doctor to take over the case. That was the way it was set up. But my brother was outstanding in surgery at Meharry, and he was actually written a letter by the superintendent of the hospital inviting him to come in. In fact, he was first one that—.
CM: First one.
CM: What’s his name?
MS: Henry Monteith.
MS: And so then—. In the experience with the Tuberculosis Association, I had clashes with the head of that organization because she was one of these scary kittens. She didn’t want me bothering with NAACP. You see, NAACP at that time was a vicious animal; she didn’t want to be bothered with NAACP. I eventually had to tell her that I’d rather my people die with T.B. than be subjected to the type of devil-demented power structure [they were] subjected to. Every now and then we had a little clash like that, and she wasn’t satisfied until I was away from the Tuberculosis Association. That part of my experience is being written up along with many other parts of my life by a young woman who’s doing some work from Emory. She has all—.
CM: Who is she, Ms. Simkins, do you know?
MS: Her name is Barbara. Barbara Abernathy.
CM: Is she writing a dissertation then?
MS: I don’t know what she’s doing, but she’s been working about a year. Many phases of my experience—I mean, she has just taken care of them, and she’s helping sort the papers which will be given to the University of South Carolina.
CM: You’re papers are going to the University?
MS: Some of them will go to Winthrop because Winthrop has asked for them since Carolina. I told them that Carolina had my commitment, but that where there were copies of articles—. Like I said, I took a course in feature writing. Where there were copies—duplicates—of materials, I would send them to Winthrop. Two others—University of Wisconsin and the University of Tennessee—have eyes for them, but I think that they should be more easily available to South Carolina people. That’s the reason they’ll go to the university, but I guess it’s going to take another year before they can actually be in any kind of shape to be transferred.
CM: In your involvement in civic work and social concerns, have you—. I’d like you to comment on how your being a woman has changed what you might have accomplished otherwise, had you been a man.
MS: I’ve never really considered myself a woman so far as being apologetic about it.
MS: (Laughs) I just was like an old blind mule; I just didn’t give a damn. If I saw something that needed to be hit, I just hit it.
CM: But didn’t anybody say to you, “Women have no business meddling in such concerns?”
MS: I have when I was working with this hospital drive, which I ran for nothing and raised the largest amount of money by a private person. Not one of these fundraising organizations, you know—. Once, one of the doctors said I wasn’t a doctor and I wasn’t a doctor’s wife and I didn’t have any business doing that particular thing. Some of the doctors where I was—they can be silly as chickens; they don’t have to be sensible just because they’re doctors.
Once in the NAACP, we had a situation: I was on this committee. They wanted a letter written, and they delegated me to write the letter which was to be signed by a Committee of Ministers. So I wrote the letter and the interim committee—special committee—who was to get the letter out, told me to write it. I wrote it, and they okayed the copy, but when it went out, some of the ministers who were more afraid of white people than they are of God Almighty said they didn’t mean for that kind of letter go out; it might make some of the white folks mad.
CM: (Laughs) I’d like to know what was in that letter. What on earth—.
MS: I don’t know. They would be in Ms. Higgins papers, all of which I think have been destroyed. They said that I wasn’t a preacher, and I had no business writing the letter. My name wasn’t signed to the letter now; they just asked who wrote this letter. And they said, “Mrs. Simkins wrote it. We asked her to write it.” And then that’s when they said, “It might fall in the hands of some white folks, and they might get mad.” And to think that they should know. I generally preach it. I don’t bother with them much because I say that you tell us that God wants a majority. If God is for you, who can be against you? I say get them (unintelligible at 49:33) pulpit. I said, “Next thing, you running from the white man, you know. I just get disgusted, you know? So I never had any—what you would call—real confrontation except that they tried for years to quiet my voice.
CM: I bet. (Laughs)
MS: And the only way they tried was to smear me.
CM: Oh, yeah?
MS: They tried that.
CM: What years were these?
MS: When I was in NAACP in the forties and early fifties. We had a state meeting of NAACP in Charleston—I think that was in ’52—and that morning, the Charleston News and Courier brought out a broadside attack on me. The NAACP said it was thus and so, and they attacked me as a communist sympathizer or a collaborator or something. And they thought that was going to scatter and scare these Negroes at this conference. We had a big conference that year, and somebody got the paper even before I saw it, which wouldn’t mean any difference with me. I do remember that John Bolt Culbertson of Greenville was at the meeting that day, and either John Bolt or—I don’t remember who [it] might have been, but I believe it was Mr. Culbertson—laid a motion that I be given a vote of confidence and in so many words, to Hell with the Charleston News and Courier. (Both laugh)
CM: Great, so great.
MS: So, there was a rousing vote of thanks and applauding and “Thank the Lord” and “Bless God” and all that. Then we went on to the meeting, and we figured no more from the News and Courier. (Laughter)
MS: They editorialized me, but I don’t think they had anything against me as a person. They thought I was a firebrander that would keep the niggers upset. That was it.
CM: Well, let me ask you about this meeting now. I thank you for telling me these little episodes from your life. What do you think might be the social consequences of this group of meetings that are being held in every state and will culminate in a national conference in Houston?
MS: I don’t know. It’s according to kind of woman who has gotten into these meetings, and how well you can indoctrinate them into what their real status is—. So many women don’t know that they are severely discriminated against, particularly in the wage scale; they don’t realize that are really victims of a male society, and they have accepted that. Like in the churches, when they want some money raised—I don’t know how it is in the white churches; I know how it is in the black churches—they get the women and fix them up to do the hard work. But when the officers are elected, it is very seldom that they put a woman in position. It’s also true in almost any organization in our society. Usually, the men hold the positions of prominence. And I think in so many instances, that women have just accepted it.
CM: When did you first become aware that this was true, Ms. Simkins?
MS: I’ve known it all the time.
CM: You observed this—.
MS: Oh, way back. I think that’s something that we need to nail down: that they should try to crash these barriers that have been set up. We have not a woman in the Senate; we don’t have a black in the Senate here; we have some blacks in the House. In the United States Senate we have very few—I don’t know how many—women but must be just two or three.
CM: None right now.
MS: None right now. The whole society has been set up so that women feel (unintelligible) need to run.
MS: They think they’ve got beetle brains; they think there’s no need to run. So we have got to just make up our minds that we’re going to break this thing. Whatever men have done and all of this prominence that they have had—. I think that when you can boil it down to one sentence: they’ve messed up the world.
MS: You see? They have messed it up. And unless we try to salvage some of this thing, we’re going to continue, but America is going to ruin. We’re on a downhill pull to ruin right now. I think if these meetings can[not] sensitize or properly indoctrinate women to the fact that they have a definite responsibility to turn the tide of this male-supremacy in society that has not done an effective, positive, and progressive job, we are just further doomed. If these meetings don’t do that, I don’t see any need for the meeting being called together.
CM: Will there be any personal consequences for you if this is able to take place? That is, do you have daughters and granddaughters?
MS: I married a man who had five children. They’re just like mine; I helped them through college and all like that. And they all—my sons and I would say my grandchildren—picked this up. In fact, my whole family has picked up the idea that—. But you’re talking about from the standpoint of women, now?
MS: Or just generally?
CM: From the standpoint of women because that is what this meeting is about.
MS: Well, I think that they have caught the light on that. They all [are] very proud of me in a way, and they—
CM: I should hope so.
MS: Well, they are. And I had my daughter, who—.
CM: Are they equally socially concerned?
MS: Yes, they are. My sister, who is in Ann Arbor—her husband for a long time was connected with the University of Michigan until he went into other work. He’s [a] bacteriologist. He was president of the Michigan state conference of NAACP, and she worked very hard there in that movement. They were given some kind of testimony and dinner with about 650 people present, two or three years ago. And she’s been a little firebrander there. Her daughters work in—.
CM: What’s her name, Ms. Simkins?
MS: Her name is Emma Wheeler.
MS: Yeah. Mrs. Albert Wheeler. So the family is generally in that trend.
MS: My son who is in business here doesn’t get out to meetings very much, but he keeps right up. He’s proud of his mother, and working in the bank, I can see his contributions going through the organizations that work in this field.
CM: How do you evaluate this meeting so far? How do you assess it? Do you think it’s accomplished what you thought it would do so far?
MS: I haven’t seen enough of it. I tell you, I had to work yesterday; my job holds me until six o’clock.
CM: What do you do, exactly?
MS: I manage at one of the branches of the Victory Savings Bank. We [are] open until six, and I didn’t get to finish. I didn’t get the balance off yesterday afternoon; I just threw the money in the vault and put the time lock on so I could come here. So the first thing I saw was the voting thing, you know, the voting rules.
CM: Oh, you really weren’t here then to see the program yesterday.
CM: You will be to be here all day today?
MS: As I said now—.
CM: Well, I’m keeping you from participating, so I should excuse you from this.
MS: Well I don’t know if I could participate a whole lot or not.
CM: Well, you’ve given us [a] considerable amount of time and its a—.
MS: Well, I’m happy to do it.
CM: —good contribution to the historical record of this meeting.
MS: Uh-huh. Thank you.
CM: And I do thank you—.
MS: Oh, you’re so welcome.
CM: —Ms. Simkins.
MS: I can sit up and talk. As old folks used to say, “You talk so much, I bet you fed your own mockingbird tones.” (Laughs)
End of Interview