Modjeska Monteith Simkins left her mark in the history books of Columbia, South Carolina by fighting for public health reform for Black families and aligning herself with the civil rights movement. Simkins emerged as a leader at a time where women were largely ignored for their efforts.
Born December 5, 1899 as the first of eight children, Simkins was raised on a farm just outside of Columbia as a result of her father’s troubled childhood. Henry Monteith, a brick mason, was a mixed-race child of a white man and a former slave. In order to protect his family from the harshness of racism in the Deep South, the farm served as a refuge. Simkins’ mother was an educator.
After graduating from Benedict College in 1921, Simkins began teaching at Booker T. Washington High School. After marrying Andrew Simkins in 1929, she lost her job as the state didn’t allow married women to teach. From there, Simkins entered the world of public health by working for the state’s Tuberculosis Association and became its Director of Negro Work in 1931. She was the state’s only Black public health worker and a vocal advocate for reform in that arena.
She was let go from the Association in 1942, due in part to her increasing involvement with the local NAACP chapter. The Columbia NAACP was established in 1939, and by 1941, Simkins had already became secretary of the state conference in 1941 holding the post for 16 years. In that time, Simkins also became an instrumental figure in the teacher equalization lawsuits across the state.
In 1950, the South Carolina federal court case, Briggs v. Elliot, would prove to be one of Simkins’ most significant moments. It would become one of several nationwide racial equalization cases that would challenge the “Separate But Equal” doctrine in the United States Supreme Court case, Brown v. Board of Education in 1954.
Simkins’ outspoken nature and swift criticism of both her detractors and allies gained her quite the reputation across South Carolina. As with most Black figures who rose to prominence then, suspicions arose that Simkins was involved with Communism. Simkins did indeed count members of the Communist Party as allies but was herself not a member. But this loose association with Communists cost Simkins her position as secretary of the NAACP’s South Carolina conference.
This did little to deter Simkins, as she began working with Southern Conference Educational Fund holding leadership positions for several organizations normally reserved for men. 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.
A booklet by Becci Robbins and the S.C. Progressive Network Education Fund titled Modjeska Monteith Simkins – A South Carolina Revolutionary” offers details of Simkins’ activism and other facts, including her founding the first Black-owned bank in South Carolina.
Simkins passed away in 1992.
PHOTO: Historic Columbia Foundation