Documenting the American South Logo
oral histories of the American South
Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Modjeska Simkins, November 15, 1974. Interview G-0056-1. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Varying reactions to racial tensions

Simkins argues that her decision to join the South Carolina Interracial Commission during the mid-1920s was in part fueled by the values with which her parents raised her. Simkins stresses how her parents made a point to help those less fortunate; however, she also notes her parents' suspicion of white people and describes how her father kept guns in the house in order to intimidate anyone from harassing the family. Her comments reveal the myriad racial tensions and reactions to those tensions during the early twentieth century.

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:
When did you first get involved in the Interracial Commission?
MODJESKA SIMKINS:
It must have been in the mid-twenties.
JACQUELYN HALL:
Do you remember the first meeting, or how you heard about it?
MODJESKA SIMKINS:
Somebody must have just invited me to a meeting, I guess. I don't know. But my mother and father were always interested in helping people. They were concerned when people's … we didn't call it "rights" then, but they were concerned when somebody was taken advantage of. And my mother was very sensitive to people's problems. I know that we would work in the fields, we had to work in the fields because that's where we made … although my father made good money, we had to work in the fields because we had to learn how to work, he said. And so, very often we would leave the fields and my mother would say, "Well, we'll have to go and see Mrs. So-and-So, she is sick." And we have to go over there and see her and then go see this or that person. I can remember those sick rooms, you know, they didn't have electricity, no electric fans and windows were made of wood. They didn't have any way to cool the people. They would have a sheet wrung out of water and hang it up over the bed and as that sheet would dry, it would cool them. And then she would say, "You go out there and get some leaves off that peach tree and beat them up so I can put them on Sister So-and-So's head," and that type of thing. And the men in the rural area in those days didn't think that a woman got through the week unless she got a whipping and so my mother anointed many of them in the back where they were whipped and all that type of thing. And then she was fearless when it came to any situation. My father kept very good guns all the time. Once the family was with him in Arkansas and they fired into the home down there because they didn't want to work under him as a black foreman, but he always had guns. Ever since I have known him, he had good guns. And so, when we moved to the country, the whites would just walk up to a house and insult a black woman or tell her to come go with them and the husband couldn't do anything about it and all that kind of thing. They didn't come up to our house, unless they were way down in the field and they would keep hailing and hailing until they knew that you heard them. Then they would come up to the house. But they didn't trust my mother or my father with those guns. I'm very different. I don't touch a gun. And one of my brothers doesn't bother with guns, but the other one, the physician, he keeps his guns. I had a friend that died and had a very nice gun, I gave it to him. Because I wasn't going to use it.
JACQUELYN HALL:
What did your father say about the guns? You knew what they were for?
MODJESKA SIMKINS:
Well, he hunted a good bit. He never had a pistol, but he had a Winchester rifle, I think what they called a Sixteen Shooter, I know that it had a lot of cartridges in it. Then, he had a shotgun, a very fine one.
JACQUELYN HALL:
Did he use them to protect your mother, to protect you all from being …
MODJESKA SIMKINS:
No, that was never said. That's what it was for if necessary. Because the night that that mob came to the house in Arkansas, one of them eventually was shot. I was quite a little girl, but I remember it just as though it happened last night. And when that one was struck, the crowd dispersed immediately. You don't have to hit but one of the fellows in a mob.
JACQUELYN HALL:
He was a brick-layer in Arkansas, a foreman?
MODJESKA SIMKINS:
Yeah, he was working with a company out of Nashville. And they would go all over the South building these buildings. And so, on that particular case, he took the family with him. We went down to Alabama, in fact, my older brother was born in Huntsville.
JACQUELYN HALL:
He shot into the crowd and …
MODJESKA SIMKINS:
Yes, he shot into the crowd. He was inside the house but he was behind a wall, just like I would be behind that wall right there and this is the front door. And so, he was behind and he pushed the gun over this way, and when some guy shot into the house, he just leaned over and put his gun this way and shot out through that hole, and that's where he struck one.
JACQUELYN HALL:
When did that happen? Do you know?
MODJESKA SIMKINS:
What year?
JACQUELYN HALL:
Yes.
MODJESKA SIMKINS:
Let's see … my brother was born in 1905, I guess it was.
JACQUELYN HALL:
And the sheriff didn't come for him?
MODJESKA SIMKINS:
No. They threw a guard around the house and they put protection for him on the job. You see, this company out of Nashville was one of the most outstanding construction firms of that day and they were determined that they weren't going to let these people, what they called "rednecks," do what they did. 1 * Owned by T.C. Thompson, brother of Norbulle Fenn. So, they put a guard around him on the building and they put guards around our house. The house was in a beautiful grove. I remember them telling my mother that she needn't worry, she would be protected. It was in this grove, and they had these men on horses that rode around all day long. And so, they said, "If you don't see us, we will be whistling and you will know that we are here," that was night, you know. And so, my father sent us back to South Carolina. I awoke one night, she had these two or three big trunks that she carried clothes in, two big trunks. And she was just rolling clothes, you know, just rolling and rolling. And I said, "What are you doing?" And she said, "We are going back." My father's next engagement was at Spartanburg in South Carolina and we went there, from El Dorado. That was in El Dorado.