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History professor seeks to correct ‘sins of omission’

Valinda Littlefield tells the untold stories of women’s contributions to SC and nation

Valinda Littlefield specializes in telling the stories of people who were omitted from the first draft of history. Whether they were people of color, women or both who were treated as second-class citizens, Littlefield chronicles the ways in which they stepped outside the roles assigned to them by society to do something courageous.

In her latest book, 101 Women Who Shaped South Carolina, Littlefield tells the stories not just of elite white women, but also of working-class women from diverse backgrounds who helped influence the cultural and political life of South Carolina and beyond.

“Sins of covert and overt omission left out the experiences of working-class women and others,” Littlefield writes in the introduction to the book she edited. “Within the last two decades, historians and others have added herstories to the history of South Carolina.”

The essays in the new book are gathered around six themes and are designed to make the stories accessible for middle- and high-schoolers.

The timeline runs the gamut from Lady of Cofitachequi, an American Indian leader in South Carolina in the 16th century, to Nikki Haley, former governor and most recently the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations under President Donald Trump. In between, spotlighted women include UofSC graduate and benefactor and businesswoman Darla Moore, English professor and National Book Award-winning poet Nikky Finney, Gamecocks women’s basketball coach Dawn Staley, UofSC’s first Black female graduate Henrie Monteith Treadwell and law school graduate and first female chief justice of the South Carolina Supreme Court Jean Toal.

Many of the women in the book have had their stories told before, most notably in the three-volume collection South Carolina Women: Their Lives and Times co-edited by Littlefield or in the South Carolina Encyclopedia, published in 2006 and edited by Walter Edgar, distinguished professor emeritus of history at UofSC. But some of the entries are new, including Donella Brown Wilson, an educator, civil rights activist and community leader who died in 2017 at age 108.

Wilson was born to sharecroppers in Calhoun County and attended Booker T. Washington School in Columbia before earning her teaching credentials from Allen University in 1933. She taught at segregated schools in Lexington and Orangeburg counties until she retired in 1971. Wilson and her husband lost their teaching jobs in Lexington in the 1940s when they requested pay and benefits equal to that of white teachers in other schools.

She was part of a large contingent of first-time voters in the 1948 Democratic primary after a successful lawsuit forced the then all-white party to let African Americans vote in primaries.

Wilson shared stories with Littlefield, who has been at the University of South Carolina since 1999 and has served as a history professor and a director of African American Studies. In addition to her work on the two books spotlighting the contributions women have made to South Carolina and U.S. history, she has served as the advising historian on several projects, including the Between the Waters Documentary Project that showcases the culture and history of Hobcaw Barony in Georgetown County on the South Carolina coast.

Finding and telling these stories are what drives Littlefield, who hopes her latest book will encourage others to find even more stories of ordinary people who helped shape history.

“I would argue there is a lot more to uncover,” Littlefield says. “Women have been at the forefront of all sorts of endeavors in creating this state and they often get left out — those sins of omission.”

“And we don’t know enough of the herstories of those left out. We haven’t done the research that needs to be done. We keep recycling the same people over and over again and leave out the ordinary people who do extraordinary things.”

In discussing the omissions, Littlefield recalls an African saying: “Until the lion tells his side of the story, the tale of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.”

“When you leave women out of the history of the building of a state, a nation, then you’re not providing accurate history,” she says.

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