Disrupters & Interlopers: Modjeska Simkins

Though her name is not well known and rarely appears in larger Civil Rights history programs, the National Parks Service described Modjeska Monteith Simkins this way:

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.

Born in 1899, Modjeska Monteith Simkins lived through nearly the entire twentieth century, and during that time, witnessed and worked for massive changes in African-American life.

Simkins earned a bachelors degree from the historically black Benedict College in 1921 then worked as a teacher. In 1929, she married and left the teaching profession.

Throughout the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s, Simkins worked in the field of public health and was very active in the state’s chapter of the NAACP. Though her successes with preventable diseases like tuberculosis were remarkable, opponents of civil rights and racial equality sometimes focused more attention on her politics than her work. She also played a significant role in the effort for racial equality in South Carolina’s public education system. However, some of her affiliations led to the accusation that she was a communist, and Simkins was investigated by the FBI and by the House Un-American Activities Committee. Of course, she was also active in the Civil Rights movement. According to the news website Black America Web:

Simkins’ outspoken nature and swift criticism of both her detractors and allies gained her quite the reputation across South Carolina. [ . . . ] Simkins worked well into her 80s on behalf of South Carolinians and was honored in 1990 with the Order of the Palmetto, the state’s highest civilian honor.

Today, Simkins’ legacy is well-preserved. The home in Columbia, South Carolina where she lived for sixty years – from 1932 until her death in 1992 – is on the National Register of Historic Places.  Simkins’ papers are held at the University of South Carolina and are available online. Also, the Modjeska Simkins School “was launched in 2015 to teach South Carolinians the history of their state that is often glossed over or left out of our school textbooks [and ] offers a forum for citizens of all ages to learn about the history of their state in the context of race, gender, economic inequality, and sexual orientation.”

For more information about Modjeska Monteith Simkins, you can read the entry about her in the South Carolina Encyclopedia.

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