Historian. Oliphant was born in Barnwell County on January 6, 1891, the daughter of William Gilmore Simms, Jr., and Emma Gertrude Hartzog. Her grandfather was the novelist William Gilmore Simms. In 1911 she enrolled at the College for Women in Columbia, and some of Oliphant’s earliest published writing appeared in the Palmetto, the student literary magazine. By the time she finished college in 1916 with a bachelor’s degree in liberal arts and piano, her skills as a writer were strong enough that the state superintendent of education asked her to update her grandfather’s 1860 history of South Carolina for use as a textbook. Oliphant’s updated version of the Simms history was adopted in 1917 and revised every five years until 1932, when Oliphant wrote an entirely new South Carolina history textbook. The Simms History of South Carolina went through nine editions and was used by South Carolina junior high school students until 1985. In 1927 she wrote The South Carolina Reader to accompany her 1917 history. In 1947 Oliphant and her daughter, Mary Simms Oliphant, coauthored a South Carolina reader to introduce third-grade students to their state. Entitled Gateway to South Carolina, it was later retitled South Carolina: From the Mountains to the Sea.
Mary C. Simms married Albert Drane Oliphant on March 1, 1917. The couple moved to Greenville in 1920, where Oliphant became active in promoting local history. In 1928 she was a member of the Upper Carolina Society and the Historical Records Committee, a forerunner of the Greenville Historical Society. After her husband’s death in 1935, Oliphant continued to write despite a bustling household that included her own three children, two of her sisters and their children, and various other relatives.
Oliphant’s most ambitious project, and the one for which she is most widely known, began in 1937 when Dr. Benjamin E. Geer, president of Furman University, persuaded her to write a biography of her grandfather, William Gilmore Simms. As she began research, Oliphant realized that it would be necessary to collect, edit, and publish Simms’s letters before a proper biography could be written. The University of South Carolina Press published six volumes of Simms correspondence between 1952 and 1982. In 1969 Oliphant collaborated with Donald Davidson to coedit William Gilmore Simms’s Voltmeier, of the Mountain Men, the first volume in the Centennial Edition of his writings. In the 1940s Oliphant undertook a project only slightly less ambitious than editing the Simms correspondence: creating a bibliography of the work of the prolific state historian Alexander S. Salley. In 1949 Oliphant published The Works of A. S. Salley: A Descriptive Bibliography. From 1956 to 1958 Oliphant served as director of the South Carolina State Public Library Association.
Oliphant died on July 27, 1988, in Greenville. She was buried in the cemetary of the Church of the Holy Apostles in Barnwell.
Atkinson, Alyce P. “Mary Simms Oliphant: A Fascination with History.” Greenville Piedmont, July 10, 1981, p. B1.
Bodie, Idella. South Carolina Women. Orangeburg, S.C.: Sandlapper, 1991.