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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Modjeska Simkins, November 15, 1974. Interview G-0056-1. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Family history and racial identity in childhood

Simkins discusses her family background and history. Stressing her parents' "fearlessness," Simkins focuses particularly on her perception of racial identity during her formative years. Noting that her grandparents had been enslaved, Simkins' parents grew up during Reconstruction. Her father became an accomplished bricklayer and bought a substantial bit of land for his family. In describing their economic circumstances, Simkins recalls that her family was more prosperous than the average African American family during those years. In addition, Simkins' discussion of her father's status as a "mulatto" is of particular interest. Simkin's explains how this affected her ideas about race and she describes her father's own struggle to reconcile his racial identity.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Modjeska Simkins, November 15, 1974. Interview G-0056-1. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

JACQUELYN HALL:
What about during Reconstruction?
MODJESKA SIMKINS:
No, they weren't old enough for that. You see, my father was born in 1870 and my mother was born in 1875.
JACQUELYN HALL:
What about their parents?
MODJESKA SIMKINS:
They were slaves. My father's parents and my mother's parents were slaves. They were my grandparents, they were all slaves.
JACQUELYN HALL:
Did you know them?
MODJESKA SIMKINS:
I knew my great-grandmother on my father's side and my grandmother on my father's side. My mother's parents died when I was an infant.
JACQUELYN HALL:
Were you influenced by them at all?
MODJESKA SIMKINS:
By who, my grandparents?
JACQUELYN HALL:
Yes.
MODJESKA SIMKINS:
No, my great-grandmother, I would say that she was a fearless old sister. In that period, there were certain things … you didn't talk back to white folks, you know. And nobody was supposed to call a white man a liar, or to say that he lied. And if a black person said that a white man lied, he was whipped. My old great-grandmother, although she was a slave, she didn't fear anybody. That was my father's grandmother and I remember her quite well. And she had a daughter, who I remember, and who helped to found one of the colleges in South Carolina, Morris College. And then my mother's sisters, both of them were professional women, they were employed as teachers, too. One of them married one of the first black physicians that came into the state, and the other one died just about five or six years ago.
JACQUELYN HALL:
How did your parents fearlessness get impressed upon you?
MODJESKA SIMKINS:
Well, there were just certain things … I'm trying to remember, and I wish that I could remember when I first became conscious of the fact that I was black and supposed to be different so far as color went.
JACQUELYN HALL:
You can't remember that?
MODJESKA SIMKINS:
No, I can't. I've often wished that I could remember that, because my mother … well, in the first place, my father was a mulatto. After freedom, his mother worked as a nursemaid in a white home there in Columbia. And she became pregnant by the father of this family and my father was a result of that union. And he never, although he should have, he never fully forgave his mother for that. The result was that my mother, who was the daughter-in-law, naturally, of his mother, she understood her better and my grandmother was devoted to my mother. My father never was abusive to her, but yet, he was cold. He was a man that had very high principles, clean-cut, honest, and very high principles. And he just, although the girl being a teen-ager was evidently the victim of circumstances, he never quite got over it. And so, although we were born in the city, my father early decided to take us into the … to buy some land on the outskirts of the city, which has now just about come into the city and is very valuable, you know, as the city has moved out. Because, at that time, he said that there was nothing for a young girl to do if she had to help the family out, except work as a nursemaid for white families. And he said that he wasn't going to have his daughters working in one of those homes. You see, that stayed with him. And so, he bought this farm land outside of Columbia and he said that he wanted his children to learn how to work and to know the value of a dollar, but he was not going to have them working in a white home. I've never thought that he hated whites, but this particular thing stayed in his mind. But, now, I knew his father, which was my white grandfather and I remember him well. Even though he had his white wife and his children, some of whom are lawyers at home there now … they own us, but we don't own them. Ever now and then, somebody says "Walter or … "I remember that once I was talking to a white lawyer there, who didn't own a car, and he said, "You know, I rode home with old Colin the other afternoon and we got to talking about politics and who was influential in politics in South Carolina. And old Colin says, ‘My cousin, Modjeska Simkins, has got more power in politics than anybody in South Carolina. If you are in a political campaign in this state, you had better at least be on the good side of her.’" I said, "Well, I don't want Colin owning me like that. I don't consider that any privilege or anything for me to be connected with Colin." There is nothing wrong with him, but I just never did …
JACQUELYN HALL:
That's incredible. How did you know your grandfather? What kind of contact did you have with him?
MODJESKA SIMKINS:
He would come to our home.
JACQUELYN HALL:
He would come to your home?
MODJESKA SIMKINS:
Yes, and he …
JACQUELYN HALL:
How did your father feel about him?
MODJESKA SIMKINS:
Well, he didn't seem to … I don't remember him coming to the home while my father was there, although there was no reason why he shouldn't. He didn't slip in. You see, I told you that my father was a birck-layer that did a lot of contract work, and when the industrial revolution started in the South, as George was talking about on the picture tonight, he would travel to help build mills and jails all through South Carolina and Alabama and Mississippi, whenever these cotton mills were coming up. After the cotton revolution came on, you see. So, he was away from home a good bit. But I do know that when my brother was born, the one that I was telling you is a physician, he was very proud. I don't know whether he was proud of the first three ones, the three first were girls, but I do know that he was very proud of this boy. I remember one day that he was at home and he had my brother on his lap and my mother's name was Rachel … I don't know whether you know it or not, but older people used to, if a baby had a well rounded, shaped head, they used to say, "He's a fine child." And so, he looked at this baby and kind of rubbed his hand over his head and said, "Rachel, this boy has got a good head on him, he is going to make you proud someday." Of course, all of my mother's children were very fine, healthy specimens. Especially for the age in which they came up. Well, like I say, we were economically above the average. So, my father always called this man, "Old Man." His name was Walter.