Simkins’s life embodied many of the ideals set forth by her parents. She proved herself as an independent leader and advocate for the black community.
Educator, civil rights organizer, community activist. Simkins was born in Columbia on December 5, 1899, the eldest child of Henry Clarence Monteith and Rachel Evelyn Hall. The family lived on a small farm outside of the city. Henry Monteith worked as a brick mason, while Rachel and the children contributed to the family’s income by selling surplus produce from the family farm.
Simkins’s home environment fostered religious growth, independence, compassion, pride, and civic duty. Henry Monteith especially encouraged his children to support Columbia’s black community. He demonstrated his own commitment by patronizing the city’s black establishments and acting as one of the earliest depositors at Victory Savings Bank, the state’s first black-owned bank. Much of Simkins’s inspiration to become an advocate for the black community came from her parents.
Simkins was educated at Benedict College in Columbia, a school designed to accommodate primary-, secondary-, and college-level students. She began Benedict College in the second grade in 1905 and remained there until she received her teaching degree in 1921. Following graduation, she taught mathematics at Booker T. Washington School in Columbia until her marriage to the businessman Andrew Whitfield Simkins in December 1929.
Once married, Simkins was no longer eligible to teach in Columbia since the school system refused to employ married women. She accepted a position with the South Carolina Tuberculosis Association as director of the Negro Program from 1931 to 1942. As director, she worked diligently to increase education and awareness of tuberculosis and other health-related threats prevalent in the state’s black community. She proved highly successful in the position but was forced to leave the association because of her increased involvement with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
Simkins joined the NAACP with encouragement from her mother and two aunts, all of whom were members. In the late 1930s she was elected chairperson of the Columbia branch’s program committee and a member of the executive board. Simkins was also present at the founding meeting of the South Carolina Conference of the NAACP, a forum that allowed local chapters to function as a cohesive unit to represent the state. During Simkins’s years with the NAACP, she assisted the organization in making great strides in the fight against inequality. She encouraged Charleston and Columbia teachers to fight for equal pay, which they earned in 1944 and 1945, respectively. She was also involved in the cases that challenged the legality of South Carolina’s whites-only Democratic primaries, Elmore v. Rice and Brown v. Baskins.
Simkins’s most noted involvement came in her work in the 1950s with the case of Briggs v. Elliott, which sought to end segregation in Clarendon County Schools. Briggs v. Elliott, along with Brown v. Board of Education, was one of the five NAACP desegregation cases to go before the U.S. Supreme Court. The nature of Briggs v. Elliott led to extensive economic reprisals for families involved in the suit. For those affected, Simkins functioned as a liaison between the black community of Clarendon County and organizations willing to provide them with aid.
Even after years of involvement with the NAACP’s State Conference, Simkins remained committed to civic action. She continued her work with many local activities and authored numerous letters and appeals on topics concerning the black community. Her organizational affiliations ranged from local improvement clubs to national efforts with groups such as the Civil Rights Congress and the National Negro Congress. In addition to her civic activism, she returned to full-time employment in 1956, accepting a job at Victory Savings Bank as public relations director.
Simkins’s life embodied many of the ideals set forth by her parents. She proved herself as an independent leader and advocate for the black community. Her diligent work contributed to successful local, state, and national campaigns on topics ranging from health care to racial equality. Simkins died in Columbia on April 9, 1992. She was buried in Columbia’s Palmetto Cemetery.
Aba-Mecha, Barbara Woods. “Black Woman Activist in Twentieth Century South Carolina: Modjeska Monteith Simkins.” Ph.D. diss., Emory University, 1978.
Simkins, Modjeska Monteith. Papers. South Caroliniana Library, University of South Carolina, Columbia.
Woods, Barbara A. “Modjeska Simkins and the South Carolina Conference of the NAACP, 1939–1957.” In Women in the Civil Rights Movement: Trailblazers and Torchbearers 1941–1965, edited by Vicki L. Crawford, Jacqueline Anne Rouse, and Barbara Woods. Brooklyn, N.Y.: Carlson, 1990.