Modjeska Simkins

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Modjeska Simkins


Modjeska Monteith Simkins, born Coloumbia South Carolina, 1899, was the first of eight children. Her parents, Henry and Rachel Monteith, named her after a favorite Polish actress Helena Modjeska. The Monteiths were a prosperous couple who encouraged their children in academic studies. Mary Modjeska Simkins died in 1992.[1]

Background

After receiving her A.B. degree, Simkins began teaching in the elementary division of the Booker T. Washington School in Columbia, and began teaching her favorite subject there two years later. In 1929, she married Andrew W. Simkins and had to resign because married women were not allowed to teach in Columbia’s city schools. Two years later she found work at the South Carolina Tuberculosis Association as its Director of Negro Work, a position that lasted until 1942, when she was released due to her participation in civil rights activities.[2]

Activism

In 1935, Modjeska Simkins and other black leaders attended a meeting called by WPA officials concerning prospective jobs. Learning that the WPA officials planned to offer blacks only low-skilled manual labor positions, Modjeska and another leader, Dr. Robert Mance, demanded better jobs for African-Americans. The result was that the WPA hired black teachers for the schools and black professionals for a state history project and an anti-tuberculosis project in Columbia. These reforms were unique.

The 1930s was also a time when equal rights for African-Americans came onto the national agenda. Congress began to discuss passing an anti-lynching bill in 1935. In South Carolina, Modjeska Simkins and other African-American leaders responded with the formation of a pressure group, the State Negro Citizens Committee. Modjeska Simkins was secretary of the organization and Dr. Robert Mance was president. The organization lobbied for the bill, contacting President and Mrs. Roosevelt, the vice president, and both of South Carolina's senators, who opposed the bill. The bill failed, as did another introduced two years later, but the debate helped to energize black leaders, who had rarely challenged any actions of the white establishment in South Carolina. Black college students began to organize to protest lynchings by the late 1930s, and black leaders organized the Columbia Civic Welfare League, which was protesting police brutality and a variety of discriminatory practises. Modjeska served as secretary for the organization.[3]

Simkins lost her position with the Tuberculosis Association in 1942, partly because she was increasingly active with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). In 1939, when the South Carolina NAACP was formed, Simkins was already a member of the executive board of the local Columbia NAACP branch and chair of its program committee. She became one of the founders of the state conference, elected to the first executive board, and the first chair of the state programs committee. In 1941, she was elected secretary of the state conference, the only woman to serve as an officer. During her tenure as Secretary (1941-1957), her work helped the State move towards racial equality.

Perhaps her most significant work took place in 1950 with the South Carolina federal court case of Briggs v. Elliott. Working with the Reverend Joseph A. DeLaine, president of the Clarenden County NAACP, she helped write the declaration for the school lawsuit that asked for the equalization of Clarenden County black and white schools. The case was eventually reworked to become one of several individual cases set up to directly challenge the “separate but equal” doctrine in the Supreme Court case of Brown v. Board of Education in Topeka in 1954.[4]

SNYC conference

In 2018 South Carolina Progressive Network published a booklet, HISTORY DENIED: Recovering South Carolina's Stolen Past by Becci Robbins. Its content is a substantive introduction to the Southern Negro Youth Congress (SNYC) and the vanguard radical labor organizing among interracial youth in the severely segregated South between 1937 and 1949. Specifically, this tells of a landmark Congress convened in Columbia, South Carolina in October of 1946.

This event had in active participation such Freedom Movement notables as local South Carolina youth leaders in addition to Paul Robeson, Herbert Aptheker, Dorothy Burnham and Louis Burnham, Esther Jackson and James Jackson, Louise Patterson, Sallye Davis, Jack O'Dell, South Carolina's Modjeska Simkins and the Congress' Keynote Speaker, Dr. W.E.B. DuBois, who gave a speech, BEHOLD THE LAND, which "has been a must read' for all young activists ever since".[5]

Communist sympathies

Her sometimes controversial activism resulted in attacks on her life and home. In the late 1950s, during the McCarthyism era, she was accused of subversive activities by the FBI and the House Un-American Activities Committee. After the Brown decision was passed down, accusations against her intensified. In 1957, for the first time in 16 years, Simkins was not nominated as a candidate for secretary by the Nominations Committee of the South Carolina NAACP, probably because of charges that she was a communist.

Mrs. Simkins continued her work with the NAACP. But as the end of segregation approached, black organizations such as the NAACP and black activists were often attacked and labeled as "Communists." As the Cold War heated up in the late 1940s and early 1950s, Mrs. Simkins came to the attention of the U.S. House UnAmerican Activities Committee (HUAC), which maintained a file on her. Her friends included some leaders of the American Communist Party. She would not turn her back on them. She publicly supported W.E.B. DuBois, who was tried in court for failing to register as a Communist, and she campaigned for a Communist who ran for public office. She belonged to a number of organizations that were watched by HUAC. These included the Southern Negro Youth Congress and the Southern Conference for Human Welfare. In 1952 she became the vice-president of the Southern Conference Educational Fund, an offshoot of the Southern Conference for Human Welfare. Several leaders of the American Communist Party belonged to those organizations, which were labeled as Communist fronts. National NAACP officials were not happy with Modjeska's Communist affiliations.[6]

Modjeska Simkins was President of Southern Conference Educational Fund was a cited Communist Party USA front.

In the late 1940s and early 1950s Simkins supported her friends, Benjamin Davis, Paul Robeson and Eslanda Goode in their struggle with the House of Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC).[7]

She was a close friend of Herbert Aptheker.[8]

Party activism

Simkins also supported two predominantly Black third-party platforms, the Progressive Democratic Party in 1940, and the United Citizens Party in the 1970s. A major figure in South Carolina history, her work spanned more than six decades. She received many honors in her lifetime including the highest commendation given by her home state, the Order of Palmetto. [9]

She was active in both the Republican and Democratic parties, but then became disillusioned about each. However, she never tied herself down to one party. Initially she was a Republican at a time when the Democratic Party in the South had no place for blacks. She was a delegate to the Republican National Convention in 1944. She also supported the Progressive Democratic Party, originally the Colored Democratic Party, formed by Osceola McKaine and John McCray in 1944, writing, planning and organizing. Despite her connections to the Republicans, she worked for McKaine in his unsuccessful bid for the U.S. Senate that year. In 1948 she supported the third party candidacy of National Progressive Party candidate Henry Wallace. Years later she was involved with another third party, the United Citizens Party, and served as its chair.

She left the Republican Party after the national Democrat Party became associated with civil rights in the late 1940s. Segregationist white Democrats in the South began to shift their allegiance to the Republicans, so the party was no longer a comfortable place for a black activist. They were "looking funny at me...Well, they looked like they had crawled out of some cracks from somewhere...". She left the Republican Party for good in 1952. In a public statement in October 1952, she explained that she was voting for Democratic presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson because Republican candidate Dwight Eisenhower, "a man of good intentions - though often ill-advised..." had come to South Carolina and associated with "bad company..." which was "...not only opposed to the fuller life of my people, they are a blighting influence upon the state of South Carolina..."

The Democrats, in turn, failed to bring about the change she desired. In a 1981 letter to the chair of the state Democratic Party, she said: "Frankly, I owe no allegiance to the State Democratic Party, due to its historical and traditional treatment of my people by denying the constitutional liberties guaranteed to native born Americans for centuries, and more recently rights given under constitutional amendments. Additionally, the state party employed and still uses various and vicious subterfuges to deny Negroes the full right to vote effectively...I consider myself a National Democrat, of which there are very, very few in South Carolina. Being independent in political philosophy, I am not married to any party...[10]

Thurgood Marshall connection

Modjeska Simkins' guests included Thurgood Marshall, who stayed here when hotels in the city were closed to African Americans.[11]

"Freedom"

In the early 1950s, the publication Freedom was published monthly by Freedom Associates, 53 West 125th Street, New York 27, New York. Its editorial board consisted of Paul Robeson, Chairman; Revels Cayton, Shirley Graham, Alphaeus Hunton, Modjeska Simkins, Louis Burnham, and George B. Murphy, Jr. The printer's symbol number 178 which appears on the publication in order to identify the place where it was printed and the local of the printer's union, is also found on virtually every other piece of Communist Party USA propaganda printed in the New York area[12].

Herbert Aptheker Testimonial Dinner

On April 28, 1966 Modjeska Simkins was a speaker at the Herbert Aptheker Testimonial Dinner. The dinner was held on the occasion of Herbert Aptheker's 50th birthday, the publication of his 20th book, and the 2nd anniversary of the American Institute for Marxist Studies. It was held in the Sutton Ballroom, The New York Hilton, Avenue of the Americas, 53rd to 54th Street, New York City. Most speakers, organizers and sponsors were known members or supporters of the Communist Party USA.[13]

GROW

In 1976, Modjeska Simkins became a mentor for the Grass Roots Organizing Workshop in Columbia (GROW). GROW founded the South Carolina Progressive Network in 1995 that carries on Modjeska's work and has their office in her historic home in downtown Columbia.[14]

References