In 1961 Robinson was chosen by Highlander and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) to set up voter-registration workshops across the racially charged South. These workshops helped transform the political and economic status of thousands of disenfranchised blacks.

Educator, civil rights activist. Robinson was born in Charleston on February 7, 1914. Her father was a bricklayer, plasterer, and tile setter, which made the family financially independent. As such, Robinson’s parents discouraged their nine children from seeking jobs as domestic workers in white Charleston homes. Robinson grew to realize the value of education, a lesson that served her well. She married in the 1930s and had a daughter, Jacquelyn, but her husband left to find work and never returned. During the 1940s Robinson left Charleston for New York City with intentions of becoming a musician. Instead she worked in garment factories, as a beautician, and eventually as a civil servant. In New York she enjoyed the privilege of living in a non-segregated community.

Returning to Charleston in 1947 to help care for her parents, Robinson joined the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and became involved with voter-registration drives. Self-employed as a beautician, Robinson could undertake civil rights work without fear of economic reprisal from the white community. In 1954 Septima Clark convinced Robinson to attend a workshop at the Highlander Folk School in Monteagle, Tennessee, where she met activists such as Rosa Parks and Esau Jenkins. Persuaded by Jenkins, who was dedicated to the social and political advancement of the black population of the South Carolina Sea Islands, Robinson returned from the Highlander workshop with a commitment to educating African Americans in her community.

In January 1957, with financial support from the Field Foundation and the Highlander School, Jenkins opened the first of what became known as the Citizenship Schools on Johns Island and asked Robinson to become its first teacher. Basing her curriculum on the practical needs of the people, she achieved great success with her first class. At the end of the five-month school period all fourteen pupils could read and write their own names and do arithmetic. More importantly, they had received voter-registration cards. The success of the Johns Island school led to the opening of additional schools on Wadmalaw and Edisto Islands. Robinson recruited teachers for these schools to be trained at Highlander.

In 1961 Robinson was chosen by Highlander and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) to set up voter-registration workshops across the racially charged South. These workshops helped transform the political and economic status of thousands of disenfranchised blacks. Robinson left the SCLC in 1970 and was hired by the South Carolina Commission of Farm Workers (SCCFW), for which she supervised Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA) volunteers in Charleston. In 1972 she ran for the state House of Representatives, the first African American woman to do so, but was defeated. Afterward Robinson returned to the SCCFW, where she worked with migrant workers until 1977. She died on September 3, 1994.

Fairclough, Adam. Better Day Coming: Blacks and Equality, 1890–2000. New York: Viking, 2001.

Wigginton, Eliot, ed. Refuse to Stand Silently By: An Oral History of Grass Roots Social Activism in America, 1921–1964. New York: Doubleday, 1992.

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Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title Robinson, Bernice Violanthe
  • Author Patricia H. Simpson
  • Website Name South Carolina Encyclopedia
  • URL http://www.scencyclopedia.org/sce/entries/robinson-bernice-violanthe/
  • Access Date November 14, 2018
  • Publisher University of South Carolina, Institute for Southern Studies
  • Original Published Date June 20, 2016
  • Date of Last Update October 25, 2016