Interviewee: Harriet Hancock
Interviewer: Andrea L’Hommedieu
Date: April 22, 2019
Accession #: SWW 012
Length of Recording: 56:02
Harriet Hancock was born on September 25, 1936 and grew up in a blue-collar family in Columbia, South Carolina. Interview includes discussion of Hancock’s childhood and early family life, her mother’s career as a buyer for Belk department store, the generosity of her parents, and her father’s mental health struggles. Hancock also recalled her years as a cosmetologist supporting her husband’s engineering education, her life as a young mother, the experience of living in Florida during the space race, and the dissolution of her marriage. After returning to Columbia, Hancock pursed higher education and also attended law school at the University of South Carolina in the mid-to-late 1980s. In 1980, her son Greg came out to her and she founded Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) in 1982. In 1985, she cofounded Palmetto AIDS Life Support Services (PALSS). Hancock helped organize the first Pride march in South Carolina and she is now known as the “Mother of SC Pride.”
Activism | Columbia, S.C. | Lawyers | LGBTQ+ | Palmetto AIDS Life Support Services (PALSS) | Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) | South Carolina Pride March
Andrea L’Hommedieu: This is an interview for the Second Wave of the Women’s Movement Oral History Project. The date is April 22, 2019. This is Andrea L’Hommedieu and today I’m in Irmo, South Carolina with Harriet Hancock. Harriet would you start just by giving me your date of birth?
Harriet Hancock: My date of birth is 9/25/36.
AL: And where and when were you born?
HH: Columbia, South Carolina in the old Columbia Hospital right here in Columbia.
AL: And who were your parents?
HH: My mother was Elizabeth Galloway McCabe and Daniels and my father was Harry Adam Daniels and they both go back in history of Columbia, so their ancestors until pre-revolution. People didn’t move. They bought property and divided it up and just stayed that’s why my history is very easy to trace on both sides of the family.
AL: Right and you said you would go back to Thomas Taylor who was one of the founders of…
HH: Yes. Yes, he was my seventh time great grandfather, 8th something like that and I recently did the, couple of years ago the research for the DAR because I always thought I would like to belong to that but didn’t know if I had any connections and yes and mine was very easy research to do because of the importance of the Civil War, I mean the Revolutionary War hero is what he was and so I could find out about him and I could trace all of the relatives on that side through gravestones in Elmwood Trinity. He is buried up on the corner of Barnwell and Richland Streets. There’s this little tiny church and a tiny graveyard where Thomas Taylor and his wife and several of his sons, they were very important family in South Carolina. His sons were governors and they all fought in wars of 1812 and just a very rich history. So I was able to trace it because the families tend to stay here. So, that’s my mother’s side.
My father’s side, the ancestor on that side that goes back, when he bought land in 1874 out in the Lake Katherine area, Kilbourne Park, Lake Katherine Area and there’s an old graveyard out there called the Kelly cemetery. One of the oldest family graveyards in the state of South Carolina and of course it’s full now but it sits up on a hill overlooking Lake Katherine and so that’s our family cemetery and we don’t know where he’s buried there but we know he’s buried there and the graveyard started when he I guess accidentally wounded his sister or so the story goes and she died and she was the first person to be buried up there on that hill that was his property and then it turned into a cemetery. Do you know Mark Land by chance?
HH: He’s with the Richland County Public Library and he’s the relative of mine. He’s done all the family research and he’s come up with a lot of things that let me know about my father’s side of the family.
HH: Because they developed all the land where they owned all the land where Brennan School is and all the land down around the lake and I have an old a picture of an old deed where he bought the property in 1784. So anyway it’s been easy to do that and I’ve been… don’t know why none of my other family members have researched this. They weren’t int…, they didn’t know. I don’t think they really cared much about it but I do care. I’m interested in that.
AL: Right and in doing some of the family research you found a connection with Modjeska Monteith Simkins.
HH: Simkins, right. Well my sister who’s passed away years ago but anyway she lived, stayed in Columbia while I lived away when my husband was working for RCA and different places and we moved around. But she called me one night and she said “I just came from the interesting lecture or and I met this woman she was on the panel or whatever and she said her name is Modjeska Monteith Simkins,” and she said “You know I believe we’re related to her.” She said “She looks just like our Aunt Rebecca.” That would have been our great aunt and she said “It’s amazing, you know, the resemblance there.” And she said, “We ought to look into that.” I said, “Oh that’s really interesting.” She said, “I was so impressed by her.” My sister and I had been civil rights activists forever. When we were little kids we didn’t understand all that segregation and the way African Americans were treated. We would just… we didn’t. So we were very open to finding out if we were related to her — we’d be tickled, you know?
HH: But we didn’t do anything about it at that time but then when I started, Becky started doing the book and I said okay I’m going to look back and I saw a film that progressive network had made about Modjeska Simkins and I thought I’ll just research a little bit further. Started looking at the, going through Find-a-Grave and actually found out that from my cousin that I was related to Thomas Taylor but it’s through Thomas Taylor’s side of the family. One of his descendants married the Monteith who fathered Modjeska’s father.
HH: And that story is on the back of the page of that book. He was, and a lot of now that I found this out I’ve been in touch with some of the relatives on that side of the family but I’m just thrilled to know that we have the connection. So, my great-grandmother and Modjeska’s father were half brother and sister.
AL: Okay. Yeah, that’s interesting.
HH: Yeah. So that’s how I found that out and like I said I was really thrilled to know that we shared a same bloodline.
HH: Because I admire her so much.
AL: Yeah. She was a great woman.
HH: She really was.
AL: She accomplished so much.
HH: And she didn’t take a backseat to anybody. She just had a lot of courage and she was determined she was not going to take a back seat to anybody. And she was wonderful. Unfortunately, I never got to meet her. My sister met her but I never got to meet her but I certainly know a lot about her from what people say. “Oh, Modjeska said this.” And I think one of the most famous things that a friend of mine told me that knew her, and that she said people would call her an “agitator” and she said, “I don’t mind that name, ‘agitator.’ Agitator’s in a washing machine and it gets the dirt out.”
HH: “So, that’s what I’m doing. I’m getting the dirt out.” (Laughs)
AL: Oh, that’s a great saying!
HH: Don’t know if it was phrased exactly that way. And I thought, “I like that. I really like that.” Yeah.
AL: So, talk to me about growing up in Columbia and, sort of, who were your influences?
HH: You know, I grew up in a family that was very blue collar. My mother worked at Belk because she, well, she’s very smart to begin with. She went to Columbia High School and then she wanted to go to business school, but that was not possible because it was approaching the Depression, there was no money. So I think when she was about 15, she was going to Columbia High downtown, she started working at Belk part-time. And that just, because she couldn’t go to business school, she stayed in that job and she became a buyer for Belk. And she worked there until she was in her sixties; she never had any other job.
So when we were growing up we had this very pretty mom. There’s a picture of her in there, I can show you in the book if you can see who we’re talking about. As we talk about her, I’ll show you a picture of her that’s in here. Becky did such a good job on this book. It should be in the early part of it but…see? There’s some pictures of Thomas Taylor. Yeah, that’s my mom.
AL: Oh, yeah.
HH: And that’s me and my sister and my brother and I had a younger sister who wasn’t born at that time. So, but that’s my mom.
HH: So, I was raised by this very attractive women who dressed, because she was in the business world, she the retail world, and we always thought she was the prettiest thing. Well, she really was. We were all blondes and she had dark hair. And my mother was the most kindest, generous person. I mean, she would absolutely, probably go to work, walk to work from where we lived on Anthony Street to downtown Columbia because she didn’t have bus fare but if she had any lunch fare she’d end of giving it to somebody. Some poor person on the street. Some blind person or whatever. She was just very generous and that was what set the tone for us.
And my father was the same way. He’d go fishing or hunting and he’d come back and he’d take the fish and clean ‘em and take them to work the next day to give them to people that could really use it. So I just saw this kind of generosity all of my life. Every Sunday…we had a maid that worked for us. And she wasn’t a maid because she came to clean my mother’s house because my mother was lazy. My mother worked. My mother needed childcare. So, we had a maid. When she had a stroke and couldn’t work anymore my mother, she took care of, when she got sick my mother got a doctor for her. Every Sunday, we packed up. Mother cooked enough to take to her, and her son, and her invalid mother, they were both invalids, and every Sunday take the food to them. And that was the Sunday afternoon thing. We packed up the car with food from the day and whatever else she needed and we went down to visit her on Sunday. Every Sunday. After she had a stroke and couldn’t work for us anymore.
So, I saw this kind of generosity and giving all my life. My house was an open door that…We, of course, in the neighborhood where we were raised, this is on property from my father’s family, had been divided up so everybody on the street were cousins, all around us. We went in and out of each other’s houses like we were a big family. You know, my cousins, it was like we had a huge family there and we were all very close. I just kind of saw this thing throughout my family all my life. My sister did, too. So we just, kind of, it was like a natural way of life, just to give to people. Make life better for somebody else. And I’m not perfect. But I saw this and it was just the way people were supposed to do. You’re supposed to help each other and I saw that growing up. That was the biggest influence, I think, both my mother and father.
I was closer to my father, though. And that was because my sister, when she was born, she was 17 months older than I am, she was a premature baby and, of course, everything was around her. I think they stayed up at night to watch us sleep. I mean, it was that kind of thing. And of course 17 months later I come along and I’m this very healthy 10-month baby (laughs) that didn’t want to do anything but eat and be held. So, I think they kind of passed me down to my grandfather and my father to be the caretaker of me. So I became close to my them than I was to my mother and grandmother, who doted on my sister. It wasn’t that the love wasn’t the same, it was just how you kind of grow closer because…My daddy taught me how to, first thing he gave me I think, when I said I wanted a BB gun he bought it for me. (Laughs) It was like I was his little sidekick and he used to take us fishing. My sister didn’t like to fish, she couldn’t stand to put a worm on a hook and me, I’m like, “I can do that.” (Laughs) So, I think I was probably a little closer to him and just doing things with him but I think I came from a great family. We didn’t have a lot of money. We didn’t have…I think, we had a roof over our heads and I think my mother worked a lot to give us nice clothes and things that we couldn’t have otherwise. But it was a struggle, you know?
HH: During that time because like I said…I thought we were rich because we always had enough to eat and had a roof over our heads and had nice clothes and I thought…I didn’t know how poor we really were until I got out in the world. (Laughs) My father was a white-collar worker. He worked at Firestone as a salesman. He did business in selling tires to big commercial enterprises so he was, he wasn’t, I wasn’t raised on a farm. I was raised in the city. It was a little different. I think I had a great childhood. Of course, we had our ups and downs like any family does. I don’t hide anything. In later life my mom and dad were both heavy drinkers more or less after they retired and we had a lot of problems with that. That kind of broke my heart. My father committed suicide when he was in his seventies. I think he did that because he was sick. He kept saying, “I don’t know why God’s leaving me here in this pain.”
AL: Mmhm, yeah.
HH: And he suffered some depression in his life. He committed suicide, but that wasn’t the first time he ever, never did it but would…several times have to…
AL: Think about it…
HH: Think about it and go to the point of locking himself in his work office with a gun, that he was going to do it and being talked out…
HH: So he had some depression, I think, in his family during that time but, so we had our ups and downs. But I consider, looking around today, that I wouldn’t trade my childhood for anything because we were, we didn’t have helicopter parents. You left the house…when you got ready, when we lived in an area that we considered very safe. Right on the edge of Columbia where Brennen School is now. And it was woods then. There was no school. There was some building going, on but we had the roam of the land. We went out to Bowers’ Beach and Lake Katherine and Gills Creek, all of those places and our parent’s didn’t worry about us. Swim in this little place called Bowers’ Beach, which is a little pond right connected to, if you go down Kilbourne Road, off to the left when you get to Lake Katherine, there’s this little pond that’s adjacent to it, so we’d swim and did all kinds of things. And we were just free to discover things on our own and I think it’s a great childhood.
AL: Yeah, and talk about what you did once you left high school. Did you go into the workforce or to college?
HH: I got married. (Laughs)
AL: You got married. (Laughs)
HH: I took cosmetology in high school because they taught it at Columbia High then. I worked as a cosmetologist for about a year after I got out of school to put my husband through school. He was an engineering student going on the Korean GI Bill. He went into the service in ’49, and after the Korean War, then he went to Carolina and we were married. I was in nurses training, I wanted to be a nurse. But at that time they were so strict on the women in nurses’ training. I mean, you had such a terrible curfew. My husband and I, we wanted to date and we wanted more freedom and you couldn’t get married when you were in nurses’ training then, so after I was there for a while I just quit and got married.
So then I worked and put him through school, he graduated and we moved to New Jersey because he had his first electrical engineering job with RCA in New Jersey. So that’s where…my first child was born in Columbia while he was still in school and her name’s Karen. She’s a dentist now and she lives in Maryland. Then we moved to…we first moved to Coco Beach, Satellite Beach, Florida because he was engaged in missile tracking. He went to work for the government. This was in the days when there missile and the manned space programs and all of that.
That was an exciting time in our lives because it was like, when we moved there, there was no housing we had to live in a motel. It was like boomtown. Everything’s a boomtown. Cape Canaveral, missiles, all these big engineering companies coming in. I think we had to live in a motel for a long time while our house was being built. And it was an exciting time because I remember at night we would go out on the beach at night to watch the night firing of the missiles and it was exciting and we would take a blanket and some drinks, take the kids, and all the neighborhood went down to the beach because we could see from where they were firing the missiles much better from the beach angle. So that was an exciting time for us and my son was born there, my gay son. And I have a daughter Jennifer, she lives here. When she was six months old, we moved to the D.C. area because he was transferred with his government job. So, that was kind of my life then.
AL: Yes, and so you’re raising kids and you’re in the home mostly?
HH: And I’m young, didn’t work. My husband didn’t want me to work. Because at that time, none of the women that I was associated with in our neighborhoods worked. They took care of kids. And my husband was adamant about wanting our kids to be cared for by me. He didn’t want them put in…he didn’t want anybody else raising the kids. He wanted me to raise the kids, so I didn’t work.
HH: So I didn’t work. But, I enjoyed not working. I enjoyed it because we had a lot of free time to take the kids to the beach because it was a great place to live, so many things to do. We had a boat and we just had a good time. So, yeah. The problem is that my husband became an alcoholic too and he died of alcoholism, we had separated at the time.
We moved when Jennifer, my youngest daughter, was six months old. That’s when we moved to the DC area. My marriage was already in trouble, though. It was in trouble because unfortunately he was a very jealous, possessive man. He almost tried to take me away from my family by not wanting me to communicate with them that much and I wasn’t having any of that. He might do other things to me, that he had control over me, but that was not one of them. So, when he was, when he had alcoholism, it just kept going. He was the kind of person, he drank all day but it didn’t affect his work. But at night when you come home and you add more to that, he drank more and he made our lives miserable.
HH: So I knew I couldn’t live in that and I tried to talk to him about it, as did the rest of his family members. He was just of the opinion, because I think they said to him, “She’s going to leave you, she can’t live in this anymore.” And he just said, “She’s doesn’t have anywhere to go. You know, what’s she going do? She can’t leave me.” In other words, I…well, unfortunately, things get so bad you don’t really think, you just have to leave. I came back to South Carolina and he lived about a year later, hoping that I would come back. Because I’d given it so many chances and it never worked out, and that was the last straw. He passed away a year later. Then I started going to school. I had never been to college before so…
AL: So that must have been a kind of scary time for you.
HH: It was, but what do you do? I was a hairdresser to put him through school and I had long given up any of that and I didn’t want to do that anymore anyway. And fortunately, because he had survivor’s benefits, he had a pension from the federal government and the kids had Social Security because he had both. So we were able to survive once again, scraping by but managing to do it. Then I went to school, my son and I were both students at the University of South Carolina at the same time and sometimes we’d end up in the same classes. (Laughs) And I would think it was so fun and funny and he thought it was the worst thing in the world. (Laughs) To have your mother in class with you. And he was like “Ugh,” and I was like thrilled.
AL: And what did you study?
HH: What did I study?
HH: You know, I didn’t really declare a major. At that time, I think you could go almost through to the end without declaring a major. Finally, I just looked down and said, “What do I have the most credits in?” I didn’t enjoy math. I just took whatever I could do to get out of there. And sociology seemed to be what I was drawn to and liberal arts. So, I got a degree in sociology and then a friend of mine, who was also in the sociology class and she was a year ahead of me, she started law school and she was just, her name was Holly Seleeby, Holly Atkins now, she’s an attorney in Columbia. And we were really good friends and she said, “You should go to law school.” I said, “Oh, I can’t get into law school.” She said, “I got into law school. You can get into law school.” And so she gave me…I said, “But I don’t have any money.” She said, “You can get loans.” And everything she said was like, she really, and I began to entertain the idea and I began to think through it. I thought, “Well, I’ll just take the test.” I didn’t have enough money to buy the necessary tutorials that people take before they take the LSAT…
AL: Oh, the LSAT prep?
HH: So she loaned me hers because she was already a year ahead of me. I studied them and I took the LSAT. Obviously, I didn’t do too badly because I got in. But everything that would happen, I’d go (gasps), “That hurdle’s gone! What’s the next one?” And then when I got there, I was like, yeah…I didn’t have much problems in undergraduate school but law school was a whole different ball game. It was so much harder. Because I was a member of Phi Beta Kappa and an honor graduate of USC, but when you get to law school it’s like you fall right into the middle here. Everybody else is here is smarter than you are, as smart as you are, as smart as you think you are, and it was a rude awakening. It was a struggle. I think it was a struggle for a lot of us. But then there was some people that just seemed to be able to do it.
But, yeah, so but I was glad I did. It was really hard. It was three years of my life that I was still handling problems and issues with my own family, still trying to raise my family. I had a daughter still at home who was real handful. It was struggling through law school, scraping by. My family helped me as much as they could but they couldn’t do a lot. My sister did everything. She bought my clothes. (Laughs) She said, “You’re gonna look like everybody else when you go to law school.” I said, “Look, we don’t dress up that much anymore. The guys don’t necessarily wear suits and things to class like they did I think when they first were going to law school years ago.” So, everybody helped me, whatever they could do. Not a lot. But, so they made it possible for me to do that.
AL: What years were you in law school at USC?
HH: I started in ’85 and graduated in ’88.
AL: And how many women were in your class? Would you…
HH: A lot. I’ll say it was a lot at the time but now I think it’s probably majority women in law school now. I think they probably outnumber the men at USC or there was a time when it did. In my graduating class, there were two women who were the two top people, graduates in our class. We had some very smart women. I think that was the time when women were beginning to think that…certainly in my case, I never in the world dreamed that I would go to law school. If it hadn’t been for Holly kind of encouraging me to do that, because I always had a keen interested in legal issues. I loved the law. I loved to read everything about legal issues and I was an avid reader. I thought, “I could do this.”
And I think with the intent of more going into an area like poverty law or public defender type work, except that I don’t like criminal. I mean, I did have an internship at the public defender’s office, I clerked there. I realized really quickly that I could never do that because I felt so sorry for the people I’d would be representing because they weren’t getting the representation…because we had so many cases, we had people pleading out…I thought, “I can’t do this, I’d take it home with me. And I wouldn’t be able to sleep at night.” So, even though I enjoyed that and I’m glad that I did that, I did not go into criminal law when I got out of school. But it was a good thing that I had that experience as a law clerk because I found out that that was something I didn’t want to do.
So, when I went into private practice, I just did a little bit of everything and you kind of find your niche and mine happened to be family law. Some estate planning, writing wills and things. That did me every well because by that time I had already started, I’m getting ahead of myself here, to be involved in the LGBT civil rights movement. And I could work through my legal experience to help people because they couldn’t get married, know how to protect themselves in relationships by doing wills and healthcare powers of attorney, so I really had a lot of LGBT clients in my practice and a lot of them I represented for no fee. Just because I felt their need and knew that it was something that I wanted to do.
So I did some pro bono work, mostly in the community, mostly with people with HIV who had lost their jobs and were struggling with the insurance companies. That was a real challenge because insurance companies would deny out of hand preexisting disease and people who had been productive in their lives, a lot of them had very good jobs, were suddenly without a job, without any insurance, and their lives changed so completely that they were practically living on the streets, so I did a lot of pro bono work for people with AIDS.
AL: Right, right. And, mostly men, or were women being…?
HH: Well, because I was a cofounder of Palmetto AIDS Life Support Services, and that was in the year I started law school, was the year I founded PALSS. So here I am, I’m going to law school struggling and I’m involved in founding this organization that I became a board member and a volunteer and I did a lot of work.
Now, we had clients from…we had children. We had, we call them “a buddy system.” I was a buddy to a baby who was born with AIDS and to a little boy whose parents, not whose parents, whose relatives were so afraid of him spreading…the ignorance was unbelievable. That they wouldn’t keep him. So, we had to find ways to take care of this child. We helped him through the legal issues and everything. In fact, if I recall, I think that Bill Edens, I think it’s in one of the books I wrote, one the of pamphlets I prepared for PALSS, that he was actually went to court and the family court appointed him, and he was gay as a guardian for this child, to take him in, a foster parent is I’m trying to say. And so Brett would live with Bill and I would take care of Brett, so we kind of worked it out together. So it was a lot of people. Certainly most of our clients were gay men, but it reached all across every walk of life.
AL: And what motivated you to start PALSS?
HH: Well, I had a gay son and I was already involved in the movement. I started Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays in 1982. My son came out to me ‘80-‘81 and immediately I knew just instinctively that nobody in the world chooses to be gay, that he certainly did not chose to be gay, knew how hard it was for him to tell me all that. And so I just embraced him completely and of course my heart sank and was anxious not because he’s gay but because of how the world would treat him. Just kept out of the mainstream of life and maybe beat up and all kinds of things. So it was scary for me but never did I reject him.
So, I started this group of PFLAG because I knew there was going to be the need for parents to understand about their child because so many people were under the impression that they chose to be gay and they they wanted their children to get back, away from that lifestyle. That they were basically persuaded to be that way by some horrible person that they could come back to be… They didn’t understand that it was not a choice and that it wasn’t something that someone influenced you to be. (Phone ringing in background 28:42-29:08) And they needed education. Until you get beyond that point you still have this hope that you can change your child and that’s just not going to happen.
I started PFLAG because I wanted to help other parents and help gay people to work through that process. And Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays does that so when I started that, I didn’t…that was in 1982. How do you get that word out that you started this organization? First of all, you’ve got to bring your son out of the closet. I mean, why you doing this? Well, it’s because I have a gay child and everybody knew it couldn’t be my girls. (Laughs) So it had to be Greg. And he was out, I think he was out to some people, but mostly in the LGBT community. So I had to get his permission to start this organization and to bring him out of the closet.
So he thought about it when I said I wanted to do this, but it’s up to you. I’m not pushing you, I just know there’s a need. I know from your own friends when they come over here and we talk and they say, “Why can’t my mom be like you? What did you do? How did you get to be so accepting?” They just needed something and the parents needed something. So when I started that organization, that was the reason why. Mostly, for parents and family members, but it was really for the gay community too to help them work through those issues. And to know that out there somebody out there, a group of people, we love you. You want to come to our meetings, walk through the door, we hug you. Very encouraging for them.
I did it because my son and it opened my eyes about the real truth of what was going on. I never paid that much attention to it before when he wasn’t gay, why would I? You get involved in things that effect your life directly, for the most part. People that have children with certain illnesses. They never paid much attention to it before. Maybe they were sympathetic, but boy, when your child is affected you really get in there and want to find out more about it. So, I think that was certainly my way of becoming involved with the LGBT community.
So, I went around to bars to let people know that there was a group called PFLAG and my son would take me (laughs) and my sister would go too. I say, “I want to go and I want to pass out some pamphlets and I want people to know, if they have parents that they want to come there’s going to be this meeting.” And I’d make a little announcement. So I went around to all these gay bars. That way I became involved in knowing my son’s friends and some of the people I met in the gay bars. I became a real advocate of drag shows. Well, not an advocate but a real fan and met a lot of the performers and drag queens. So I just sort of developed a friendship among the community. I was trusted. They knew they could trust me. So that’s how I got to know people in the community and begin the work.
Then I went to a PFLAG convention in Denver in 1984. When I was there, I heard about this disease. They were calling it GRID at the time – Gay Related Immune Deficiency, later known as HIV/AIDS. But that’s what they were calling it, they were calling it: Gay Related Immune Deficiency. That’s what everybody was calling it at the time and there was a woman there who had lost a son, later on she lost a second son because he became infected too.
But I just kept hearing…I hadn’t heard much about this disease, maybe a smattering, something in the news but it just wasn’t news in Columbia, South Carolina. It was not. And I thought… they talked about how it spread and they did not know, there were so many unknowns scientifically about the disease at the time. But it was coming across. It was not just in California and New York and the big cities. It was spreading out to the smaller communities, to the smaller cities in the South and everywhere. I thought, “This is really going to be horrible, what’s going to happen. Because there will be a time when there’s going to be people in Columbia, South Carolina, in South Carolina affected by this and what’s going to happen?”
And at the same time, well, I just wrote a letter to a bunch of hospitals saying, “I’ve have this organization called Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays. I’ve learned of this disease…” By now they may have been calling it AIDS, I don’t know. “But if you have any patients in your hospital who need visitation, who need a friend, we will be glad to visit.” And I kind of got with the Metropolitan Community Church and we got some people to volunteer. And we did, we were called to the Upstate to a hospital. I think it was Lancaster, I can’t remember. It’s in the book. And we visited a man whose family had completely rejected him. I can remember all I could think about when I was going to do something nice for people I would always bake cookies to take. (Laughs) Some of these chocolate chip cookies with nuts and I just had this tin. You know, a little gift. And the first thing I was determined to do when I walked in that room was to walk over and touch this person. Touch was very important. They weren’t touched…hospital workers weren’t touching them without gloves and everything.
So we started the visitation with this man and, when I talk about the cookies, the poor fellow didn’t have any teeth so he couldn’t eat the cookies. That was the first thing I thought, “Oh gosh, what have I done? I got this tin of cookies here and he can’t even eat them.” But that wasn’t the important thing. The important thing was that we were there and we continued to visit. Some of the time I couldn’t go because I was in law school, but the church people continued to go. So that was out first experience and then we started…because it did come to Columbia. There was a young man who came down with it. The way he was treated in hospitals, people…they wouldn’t take his food trays in…You’ve heard the stories.
HH: They didn’t want to come in the room. The help’s scared to death. Your food trays would stack up in the room or they would put you…the care was horrible. Not even cleaning your room. It was filthy. The doctors’ were great. They would raise the roof. Do I need to?
AL: No, you’re good.
HH: Okay. They would raise the roof but you couldn’t get through to the people in the hospitals. Some of them were not that intelligent and they were just running scared. So, we had to, we did a lot of intervention. With hospital people, I’d just try to be nice and say, “Look.” But they were afraid they were going to…
So we went through all that and he went through all that. And then the church, they pulled away. His church that he went to, from the family and from him entirely. They were not going to…So I think when he, so he kind of became the impetus. His parents. Tony Price, he was a big leader in the LGBT movement. Four of us got together. M.J. Watson (? 36:06), she was a friend of the young man,  Buzz Aldrich, who was infected, Keith Purlue (? 36:43) who was a bar owner, and me. And we went to California Dreaming one night and we talked about starting this organization, what we’re going to name it, and what we’re going to do. Then we had a meeting at Trinity Church and we started Palmetto AIDS Life Support Services.
We had a fair number of social workers involved. People that just wanted to help, because they realized, they could see the handwriting on the wall. And it happened, because when we tried to raise money for PALSS, it was such a stigma. The big organizations that normally were so benevolent to charities and things, they slammed their doors in our face. They did not even want to be associated with the name HIV/AIDS, gay, anything and all related to that.
AL: So you saw a big change in the support?
HH: Yes. So they didn’t support. So we had to raise every penny that we had to try to fund our little Palmetto AIDS Life Support Services organization. We didn’t have a home. We ran our business out of Bill Edens’ apartment up in Cornell Arms for a while and then we found an office and then we, so we just moved from place to place, whatever we could afford and some other thing. I think we ended up in this motel that was on Assembly Street, I can’t even remember the name of it now. It was not a real thriving motel, it’s kind of going downhill a little bit. We got some office space there. And I think that might’ve even been donated.
So we struggled with everything. The first money we raised, we raised it in gay bars around the state. We had what was called a “PAL-athon” or something and every bar competed to raise the most money and we raised about $10,000 in this one endeavor. And it was at night and we’d had people in Myrtle Beach working down there and they’d call in with their total. We’d have people in bars, all of it was in bars. So that was our big fundraiser and that was where we got the money. There was nobody out there…
HH: Churches, oh. In the name of Christianity, they turned their backs. They came around later. But in the beginning it was like “We don’t even want to talk about this.” First of all, it was so much unknown at the time…well, there wasn’t unknown, but people just wasn’t believing it. We knew that it didn’t transmit through the air because it just didn’t. You couldn’t get it from breathing, we knew that. And how you got it. People thought because you’d touch somebody you were going to get it. So we had to fight the stigma. We had to fight the stigma of it being gay men, mostly. They thought it was a gay man disease, that’s why they named it GRID until they found out that it effected a lot other people.
So that was a lot of years that we just struggled and struggled and we said that we had to have a sense of…There was a lot of laughter going in that PALSS office. I’ll tell you why. If we didn’t find things to laugh about, we couldn’t have stood it. We just couldn’t because every day there was some crisis. There was also problems with the legal system. They did name reporting for people with HIV back then. You had to put your name in. Other states were doing anonymous by number so that your name wouldn’t be know because they’d say it’s name reporting but it’s confidential. How confidential when you get, when you’re dealing with these agencies where it wasn’t confidential? So we’d send people to Georgia to get tested because they didn’t have to give a name. We’d send them to North Carolina. So we were in sort of a fight with DHEC and the legal system because they insisted upon named reporting, which they had. But we tried to work our way around it by sending people other places so then they wouldn’t be in our system.
HH: And we had a lot of really smart people working with us, that’s what I can say. We found a way. We found ways to do things with no money. I mean, just really working hard to get…because the demands were so unreal. You lost your job. You lost your insurance. You have no money. You can be made to live on the street. What can you do? Who’s going to…
AL: Right. And now during all of this, do you consciously realize that you’re an organizer and that you’re leading and you’re growing…
AL: …these groups?
HH: No. (Laughs) I didn’t really realize any of it. All I know is when I was in law school and we started PALSS. For the first year, I guess, I was on the board always and I said, a buddy to different people. I wanted to be a part of the volunteer organization that worked regularly with the patients. Everybody was assigned, everybody, they were a buddy to at least one person and we had a lot of volunteers. Some from the straight community, but mostly from the LGBT community that worked and helped us.
No, I just said, “Y’all I’m in law school here and I’m overwhelmed with it and I’m just going to have to resign from being on the board and having such an active part in PALSS.” And they said okay, but then they came to me and said, “You can’t do that Harriet. You are a straight woman. You’re known in the LGBT community. We need you to be the President of this organization. We’ll help you. We know you’re in law school. But for the sake of the organization, you are the person that needs to be up there knocking on doors. You’re a straight woman. You have a good background. You need to be a face of PALSS, too.” And I said okay. So I did. Gosh.
I stayed on the board. I think it was 1991, that I finally decided…by this time in 1991, I had already been involved in starting the first Pride march. Starting what was called South Carolina Gay and Lesbian Pride Movement, which the first march was in ’90. By ’91, PALSS was on a sure footing. By then, they had help from the many allies in the LGBT community, and in the straight community, and in corporations. They were getting grants. So I felt at that time I could devote my time to, maybe I could spend a little time in law school, (laughs) a little bit more time than I needed to spend. And then work with the movement because I was very interested in people being able to come out and live their lives as who they are and stop being afraid of being outed. To be able to put the picture of their partner on their desk at work. To be able to live their lives as they should and needed to and that was what I wanted to focus on.
HH: But I stayed with PALSS. I love PALSS. To this day I support PALSS. I think they’re doing a great job. And I’m really proud to be a part…There’s a picture of Bill Edens in that book, and I was sitting across from him. He became the executive director and he died of AIDS in, trying to think, in the early ‘90s, ’93 or ’94.
AL: And as a woman doing all of this, have you had any challenges as a woman navigating law school or these organizations?
HH: (Laughs) Well, the thing about law school was that it wasn’t guys so much that…You know, everybody knew that I was involved in the work with the LGBT community and I remember that when they started to having a gay awareness week at USC or a day when they’d have to…One woman who was in law school with me said, “I don’t know why they…Why don’t we have a straight person’s organization?” You know, in other words…
HH: We were in a group of about six people and I just lit into her. Yeah, and I just said, “And why would you think you need that? Are you living in a closet? Would you be fired because somebody knows you’re straight?” Turn the tables here. And she just really didn’t know what to say back to me and it was really quiet and everybody in the whole group stopped talking and kind of walked away. And I thought…she apologized to me later for that and it took about a whole year before she realized and she said, “I’m so sorry for what I said to you that day.” Because it was directly aimed at me. I think we had just picked up our newspapers and there was something on the front of the Gamecock that talked about gay awareness or whatever and that’s why she said it. And she said it because I was in the group, and I know she did.
So, it was not only just…people in general were kind of not accepting. I never thought of being a woman as being a detriment. I just never had that experience, except I did feel that when I started practicing law. I always felt that the judges…because the male lawyers in the room would walk up and talk to the judge before the case started about fishing and being buddy-buddy and golfing. Women didn’t do that and I resented that. I think somebody finally called them out on it and they stopped doing it. Because here you are in a courtroom with your client at you’re over at your table and you’re waiting for the procedure to start and this guy is walking up to the judge at the bench and they’re talking about their good ol’ buddy and my client’s looking at me like, “Do you know the judge?” I know what they were feeling, like “I’ve lost this already. My lawyer doesn’t know that judge.” It worked against us. So I saw that in the courtroom. Not all judges were guilty of that but there were ones who were. And I don’t think they thought there was anything wrong with it. They just didn’t realize how it made a woman feel. Because women were not excluded in that golf group…well, at that time they couldn’t even go to the Palmetto Club.
HH: Until Jean Toal became chief justice. (Laughs) That all changed. So, I think a lot of times men were not aware of what they were doing to women and how they were…But those are the kind of things that happened. They just weren’t. They just didn’t think about….But we felt it. I always felt that we had to work harder. I always felt that women in law had to go the extra mile to prove themselves because they were women. I did feel that. I did feel that. But as my work as an activist for the LGBT community…all of them were discriminated against from the get-go. So I felt that…
AL: Right, so you were an advocate and the face of the advocacy…
HH: Yeah. Right. I just, I didn’t back away from anything. When somebody would tell a gay joke I’d say, “I resent that. You wouldn’t tell a joke about black people anymore. That’s not acceptable. What makes you think you can tell dirty jokes or you can tell ugly jokes or say things about gay people?” I’d just say that’s not appropriate. Sometimes I’d say, “I have a gay son and you hurt my feelings.” (Laughs) I did. And then what are they going to say? And so I always was just kind of, I didn’t back away from speaking my mind at all. So I don’t think I feel that in the gay community but I did feel the struggle that women had when they first began to practice law. I saw that.
AL: Where there any women who were your mentors or who you looked up to in the legal community?
HH: Well, I think Sarah Leverette was the one that we, and there’s a book about her too, that we all looked up to. And Jean Toal, she’s a mover and shaker. And she’s one of these people that she speaks her mind too. And I really admired her. So yes, those were two women that I just greatly respected. But as far as people, women in the law that I knew on a daily basis, we were mostly in the same boat. So those are the two women that I would say that I…Vickie Eslinger’s wonderful. Malissa Burnette, and of course we were all along the same time.
But gosh, there’s so many women lawyers out there that I admire right now. Nekki Shutt, Malissa Burnette, I think about Vickie Eslinger. All of these people. Ann Furr was a mentor and she’s passed away some years ago. Very kind, very nice. You know, pick up the phone and call, say, “I’ve got this prob…” and a lot of it had to do with gay issues and they didn’t necessarily know either so we kind of worked it together. They’d say, “This is the way I’d approach it.” A lot of the time it had to do with custody issues. A partner was gay, and there was a divorce, and the wife is saying to the husband, “You’re never going to see this kid again.” And that was not true because you can’t, that was not…And I think the judiciary at the time was not educated about LGBT issues and what people faced, so that was kind of a challenge. I knew women who were working in that area, too. But I was the one they’d day, “Go see Harriet!” (Laughs)
AL: And so we’ve talked a lot about the oppressed communities, underrepresented communities…
HH: Mmhm, yes.
AL: What do you see in the future? I mean, do you feel that we have come a long way? Where are we?
HH: I think it’s called a “woman’s day,” a woman’s world, a new beginning and I see great things just with these movements that these remarkable women have started in Columbia with the…we need to recognize what the women have done. I think there are so many women that are interested in that and I think there are men out there who are out there helping them because they believe in it too. Recognize women. I just see some much that has been started and on going, not only locally but nationally. The women who are in politics now that are running for office. I think it’s a new day, I see. I have great hope that this is the movement that has been started that will continue.
See, I compare it to the LGBT community in a way. For so many years, the LGBT community struggled and struggled and finally when their day came it was like, “We’re out of the closet, we’re not going back.” And I think HIV and AIDS had something to do with that because it brought people out of the closet. You had to answer. If your partner was dying of AIDS, you had to do something. It just happened and people could come out and say, “I have to help in this. My friends are dying. I just have to…” So it brought a lot of people out that could be more active in the movement because they were out. I think that’s one, horrible as AIDS was, that’s one good thing that came out of it. I think it coalesced the gay community into fighting this battle and becoming more organize to fight other battles, too. Not only AIDS but just, for their rights.
Because it’s been going on for years but it’s been in fits and starts and organizations because they face so much. If you can’t be out to your family, your family, your church doesn’t want you, legally you’re a sodomite, you’re a felony for sodomy, and all this. It was everywhere you turned, it was against you and why wouldn’t you stay in the closet? First of all, you have to feed yourself and put a roof over your head so you have to have a job, that’s the biggest thing and then the family. For so long it was that way. Well, I see the women, the women’s movement, I see women building strength through things, and it just happens that this is the women’s time now. This is the women’s day. Men just better move over. (Laughs) Don’t get in our way. But I do see a lot of men supporting women, too, and I think that’s wonderful.
HH: My grandson was raised, his name’s Tommy, was raised around gay people. (Laughs) I mean, because I’m involved and he knew a lot of gay people. He calls himself a feminist. He is a man feminist. He’s for women’s rights all the way down and I’m so proud of him for that. He loves women. He sees their value. Sometimes he thinks, I’ve heard him say, “Sometimes I think women are smarter than men.” (Laughs) That’s just because I’ve had such an influence on you. I used to tell him I was the smartest woman in the world. When he was little, he really believed it. (Laughs)
AL: Well yeah, I think the newer generation is more open.
HH: They are.
AL: And finding male support for the women’s movement, I think is still growing.
HH: Yes, it is.
AL: Is there anything that I haven’t asked you that you think is important to add?
HH: I think that one thing that I’m still concerned about, I’m 82 years old and I don’t have many more years to go, I tried to work on the plight of the transgender. That was a…Those are the people that didn’t come along with the LGB movement. They didn’t come under the umbrella of the protection of the LGBT community; nobody was working so much for their rights. But they are the most maligned, most misunderstood group of people that I know of. Although I see people have suffered for the lack of understanding and discriminated against, but this group suffers more than probably any group because people do not understand it and people refuse to understand it and I think that now their day has come, too. More people are paying attention to that. And I want to see that happen. I want to see the need, need to be so many changes. So much education in the medical system. The way they are treated medically – hospitals, E.R.s when they go and how’re they’re treated. I think that is my, what do you call it? My “last hurrah” is to try and support the LGBT, the trans community as much as I can. And the Center, we have a bunch of transgender groups, supports groups there and I’m proud that the center does that and that’s the group that I want to see to really gain their rights and be more understood, so I guess that’s my last hurrah.
AL: Mmhm, yeah.
HH: So that’s what I’m interested in now.
AL: Great, thank you.
HH: You’re welcome.
End of Interview