Modjeska Simkins was the matriarch of the Civil Rights Movement in South Carolina. She was also a leader in African-American public health and social reform. For her contributions to the struggle for civil rights, Simkins is an American Hero.
Modjeska Monteith was born on December 5, 1899 in Columbia, South Carolina. Her father, Henry Clarence, was a brick mason. Her mother was Rachel Evelyn Hall. Throughout her childhood Monteith lived on a farm near Columbia. She continued her education, and graduated from Benedict College in 1921. After graduation, Monteith, began teaching at Booker T. Washington High School. Public Schools in Columbia did not allow married women to teach, so Monteith was asked to resign in 1929 after she married Andrew Whitfield Simkins.
In 1931, Simkins began working in the public health field as the Director of Negro Work for the South Carolina Tuberculosis Association. Simkins became the state’s only full-time, statewide African American public health worker. Southern racism and poverty helped tuberculosis, pellagra, and other-illness increase African American mortality rates. Simkins created alliances with black and white groups and helped raise funds which made a substantial health impact for African Americans.
By 1942, Simkins was fired from the Tuberculosis Association. Her increasing involvement with the NAACP was a contributing factor. She was a member of the local Columbia NAACP branch and program committee chair when the South Carolina NAACP was formed. She was one of the founders of the state conference. Simkins was elected to the first executive board and was the first chair of the state programs committee. In 1941, Simkins was elected as Secretary of the state conference-- she was the only woman to serve as an officer. Simkins served as Secretary from 1941-1957. Her work helped push the state closer to racial equality. Some of her most significant work took placed in 1950 with the Briggs v. Elliot South Carolina federal court case. Simkins worked with Rev. Joseph DeLaine to write the declaration for the school lawsuit that called for equalization of Clarendon County Schools. DeLaine was the President of the Clarendon County, South Carolina NAACP. The Clarendon case was reworked to become one of the several individual cases that would directly challenge the “separate but equal” doctrine in the Brown v. Board of Education case in Topeka.
Her activism, which at times was controversial, drew negative attention. Simkins' life and home became the targets of violence. An unknown assailant fired shots at her house while she was active with the NAACP. By the late 1950s, she was accused of being a communist because several of her friends were members of the American Communist Party. The F.B.I. and House Un-American Activities committee accused her of subversive activities. In 1957, she was not nominated as a candidate for secretary for the South Carolina NAACP. It was the first time in 16 years. Some officials suggested that her association with communists and alleged subversive groups were the cause of this. Despite this, Simkins remained active. She was active with the Southern Conference Education Fund, a southwide interracial civil rights organization, for many years. Simkins also served in many leadership positions that were traditionally unavailable to women in the civil rights movement.
Modjeska Montieth Simkims passed away on April 5, 1992 in Columbia, South Carolina. Speaking at her funeral, Judge Matthew J. Perry stated:
“She probably will be remembered as a woman who challenged everyone. She challenged the white political leadership of the state to do what was fair and equitable among all people and she challenged black citizens to stand up and demand their rightful place in the state and the nation". Simkins is associated with the Modjeska Monteith Simkins House in Columbia, South Carolina. It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places on March 25, 1994. It is not open to the public.