Published on October 28th, 2019 | by Millennium Magazine Staff0
Grant to Preserve Modjeska Monteith Simkins Home
Civil rights leader’s home to once again become a site for human rights activism
Columbia, S.C. — The National Park Service has awarded a $49,500 grant to Historic Columbia to turn Modjeska Monteith Simkins’ home into a museum honoring the life and legacy of the woman known as the “matriarch of civil rights activists in South Carolina.”
“With this second grant from the National Parks Service, we are able to provide access to the unique and inspirational story of Modjeska Monteith Simkins,” said Historic Columbia Executive Director Robin Waites. “This house was once a center for engagement around key issues from access to health education to civil rights to environmental advocacy. We look forward to returning it to that dynamic state.”
Until her death in 1992, Modjeska Monteith Simkins was unrelenting in the fight for racial and social equality in Jim Crow South Carolina, and her tenacity and leadership helped dismantle racist legal policies throughout the South, including the landmark US Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education. Self-styled as “an advocate for the people,” Simkins’ civic engagement extended to health care, women’s rights, and the environment. Over the course of her 92 years, she displayed a courage and perseverance that many argue was unmatched.
Slated to be completed in 2020, this project is supported through a grant from the African American Civil Rights program as administered by the National Park Service, Department of Interior. Over the last year, a similar grant from the National Park Service funded a comprehensive, museum-grade rehabilitation that brought the site up to code, repaired original windows and plaster, and made the house ADA accessible with a new ramp in the rear of the house.
For Simkins’ former home to realize its full potential, Historic Columbia is embracing a holistic interpretation of Simkins’ life and the South Carolina civil rights movement with the help of this grant, as well as funds raised through its annual campaign, support from the Richland County Conservation Commission, the State of South Carolina and other generous supporters.
The site’s new exhibits, which will highlight Simkins’ role in navigating discrimination and oppression of the Jim Crow period while organizing black South Carolinians to fight for — and win — equality on multiple fronts, will show that black citizens brought American democracy closer to the ideals espoused by the founding fathers than at any other point in the country’s history. A new dynamic classroom and maker-space activities, as well as public programming, will allow visitors to explore themes of citizenship and aspects of activism that connect our shared past with contemporary human rights issues.
Modjeska Monteith was born in Columbia, S.C. on December 5, 1899, into a society that legally dispossessed women and people of color of their civil liberties. After graduating from Benedict College she taught at the segregated Booker T. Washington High School but was forced to resign after marrying Andrew W. Simkins in 1929. Rather than stay at home, she became the first Director of Negro Work for the South Carolina Tuberculosis Association (SCTA), where she witnessed the stark disparities in treatment and health education for black and white South Carolinians and relentlessly advocated and fundraised for the association’s African American programs.
In 1941, Simkins assumed the position of secretary of the South Carolina NAACP. Firmly established in the leadership of the NAACP, joined with other activists to challenge South Carolina’s continued flouting of established law, including co-authoring the petition that became Briggs v. Elliott, seeking to end segregation in public schools. Briggs was argued by Thurgood Marshall, who often stayed with Simkins while in South Carolina prepping for this trial and others. Briggs v. Elliott was one of the five cases that comprised the Brown v. Board of Education decision, in which the US Supreme Court struck down segregation in public schools nationwide.
In campaign materials created for an unsuccessful run for Columbia City Council in 1983, she called out the status quo of race and gender relations, contending that “over one-half of all Columbians are women and over one-third of them are black, yet Columbia’s political decisions have always been made by white men.” For all her contributions, Simkins only received broad recognition of her work towards the end of her life, although today she is often considered South Carolina’s foremost human rights activist.
From 1934 until her death in 1992, Simkins’ home at 2025 Marion Street in downtown Columbia served as a central space for civil rights and social justice activities. Historic Columbia took over the stewardship of the site in 2006 and utilized the home for educational tours and public meeting space until September 2018.
About Historic Columbia: In November 1961, a small group of individuals intent on saving the Ainsley Hall House from demolition officially incorporated as the Historic Columbia Foundation. Over the next five decades the organization, which was founded on the premise of preservation and education, would take on the stewardship of seven historic properties in Richland County. Today, the organization serves as a model for local preservation efforts and interpretation of local history. Visit historiccolumbia.org or find us on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram or YouTube for more details.