ORANGEBURG, S.C. – The life story of 1957 South Carolina State College graduate Juanita Willmon Goggins is one of both triumph and misfortune.
A woman of many firsts, Goggins was a pioneering politician and civil rights activist who rattled South Carolina’s restrictive politics. Twice in the late 1970s, she was a guest of President Jimmy Carter at the White House.
The youngest of 10 children, Goggins was a daughter of Willie and Lillian Willmon, who were sharecroppers in Anderson County. She was the only sibling to earn a four-year college degree. Her bachelor’s degree in home economics from SC State was followed by a master’s degree.
She taught in the state’s segregated school system and continued through desegregation in the 1960s. But she saw how discrimination and separation persisted through red tape, funding inequities and lingering mindsets. That led her to enter politics with a resolve for change.
In 1972, she became the first Black woman to represent South Carolina as a delegate to the Democratic National Convention. In 1974, she was appointed to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission.
That same year, Goggins defeated an incumbent white man in the Democratic primary and a Republican opponent in the general election to become the first Black woman elected to the state’s legislature.
“I am going to Columbia to be a legislator, not just a black spot in the House chambers,” she told The Associated Press at the time.
Voters “were weary of poor representation. They were ready to accept a person who was sincere and concerned about things. Those feelings go beyond color,” Goggins told the AP.
According to AP, she sat on the powerful House budget-writing committee and was responsible for funding sickle-cell anemia testing in county health departments. She also helped pass the 1977 law that is still the basis for education funding in the state. The Legislature adopted proposals to expand kindergarten and to reduce student-teacher ratios in primary grades after her departure.
In addition to her political activities, Goggins was known for her dedication to numerous civic organizations and committees.
Unspecified health issues led her to leave politics following three terms in the state House. Goggins later divorced and moved to Columbia, where she lived for 16 years and became a social worker. She was founder and president of the Juanita W. Goggins School of Excellence, a nonprofit tutorial service for students in kindergarten through grade 12.
In 2009, the state named a section of Highway 5 in Rock Hill in her honor.
By then, however, Goggins had become increasingly isolated from family and friends, who suspected she was suffering from dementia. She spent her final years as a recluse and froze to death in her home at age 75 in 2010.
Still, Goggins left a legacy of courage and determination that continues to benefit South Carolina families regardless of creed, color or gender. Her life as an educator, civil rights champion and trailblazing politician set an example for African American women in South Carolina and across the country.
Sources: Associated Press, South Carolina Women’s Leadership Network, National Public Radio.