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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Modjeska Simkins, July 28, 1976. Interview G-0056-2. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Challenges of working for the Tuberculosis Association

Simkins discusses the challenges she faced while working for the Tuberculosis Association throughout the 1930s. Simkins had been hired to help educate teachers about health-related issues, namely the threat of tuberculosis. Simkins addresses racial tensions within the Tuberculosis Association while she worked for them and argues that her supervisor disapproved of her association with the NAACP. Simkins explains why she finally left the Tuberculosis Association in 1942, when she was increasingly criticized for trying to weave information about matters such as venereal disease into her program. Her comments here reveal the kinds of social justice issues with which Simkins was increasingly concerned and she alludes to a general failure of paternalistic organizations to address real problems.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Modjeska Simkins, July 28, 1976. Interview G-0056-2. 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:
And they had what, a colored division?
MODJESKA SIMKINS:
Yes, they had what they called a Negro program.
JACQUELYN HALL:
Were there any blacks on the board?
MODJESKA SIMKINS:
No, not on the board. This Negro group was kind of an advisory group. For instance, when they had the annual meetings, they'd hardly have a Negro there. If they did, they'd put him a way over in the corner somewhere. I never would bother with going to them because I didn't let anybody sit me in a corner. I'd just sit in my own corner in my house. But after I worked my program up quite a while, I had so many volunteers, scores and scores of them, that on several occasions I called my workers together and I'd always have a reception for them here during the State Teachers Association. Many of them were teachers. That irritated me, I mean just angered me because they were always telling me that tuberculosis is the greatest threat to blacks, and yet when they'd have these state meetings and they'd bring these authorities in on tuberculosis, case-finding and all that type of thing, the Negroes weren't there. They had them, and then they would kind of do like a pigeon: eat something and regurgitate it to the little pigeons. Well, that's the kind of thing that was. I really had to tell my boss off one day when she was trying to make some kind of excuse about these separate things. You know, I knew why they were separate 'cause I knew what these segregation things were in these hotels and things. I said, "Well, one thing is boiled down to this. You all are concerned more about eating an old cold piece of chicken and a few little ol' green peas sitting up in the top of a pile of potatoes than you are about actually fighting tuberculosis." Oh, all that stuff just got on my nerves. Every now and then I'd have to boil it over.
JACQUELYN HALL:
Who was your boss?
MODJESKA SIMKINS:
A woman named Chauncey MacDonald—C-H-A-U-N-C-E-Y Blackburn. She came from a family of Blackburns, Chauncey Blackburn MacDonald. A highly religious family. I didn't say Christian; I said religious.
JACQUELYN HALL:
How did she respond to your …
MODJESKA SIMKINS:
Oh, she thought it was awful that I would think like that. She thought quite often that I was an awful creature.
JACQUELYN HALL:
What other conflicts did you have?
MODJESKA SIMKINS:
Well, I had several … one that I think of. Well, there were two other outstanding. One was that she did not want me to work with NAACP, didn't want to hear about me being connected with NAACP in any way. And she called me in one day … which, I wasn't taking any time from my job working with NAACP. But she didn't want to hear of me bothering … at that time, the ferment had started in the state. The NAACP conference was organized in 1940, state conference. She heard about that, and the man who was president was a firebrand in a way. And she—I think some of the Negroes on that board had something to do with it—but she said that she thought that I ought to let somebody else take on the fight like that, and I tend to what I was doing. I said, "Well, I'm not doing it on the time." I said, "I can belong to NAACP, and it doesn't affect my work. You ask me, you say, you want production. Am I bringing production?" She said, "Yes." I said, "Well, what's the gripe?" Well, she just thought that I ought not be in it. This man Hinton was an awful man and I shouldn't be connected, and she would prefer that I shouldn't. I said, "Well, if that's the way you feel about it, I'll tell you how I feel about it. I'd rather all Negroes die and go to hell with tuberculosis than go through some of the things they're suffering right now, and that the NAACP is trying to stop them." She said, "Ooh, ooh, ooh." Why, she just come near having ten kittens, you know! [laughter] That was one. And then around in that time, they made a picture down in Tuskegee about … some picture to help fight tuberculosis called "Let My People Live." And they premiered that picture in Camden. I mean, so far as South Carolina was concerned, they premiered it in Camden. I don't know where I saw it. I guess I saw it … I don't know where I saw it, but I saw it before she saw it. And some old woman in Camden saw it before she saw it. So she told me that Miss So-and-So in Camden said that they said that they were making "Let My People Live" as a picture by Negroes to help fight tuberculosis among Negroes. But it looks like they had more fair Negroes in it than they had actual showing of black Negroes. I said, "I saw ‘Let My People Live’." I said, "That old woman doesn't know what she's talking about." I said, "She either didn't see the picture or she didn't try to see it through because she got too shook up before she saw all of it." I said, "The preacher they got in there's as black as any ink I ever saw." I said, "And they've got the choir of Tuskegee in it, and I know there's no white people on that. And if there's any yellow ones on that, they didn't make themselves yellow." [END OF TAPE 1, SIDE B] [TAPE 2, SIDE A] [START OF TAPE 2, SIDE A]
JACQUELYN HALL:
I was just going to ask you why you quit working for the Association in 1942, for the Tuberculosis Association. Isn't that right?
MODJESKA SIMKINS:
Yes. I quit working for them because the conditions became untenable, because of certain of these, you know, restrictions that were there because of the NAACP. My boss told me that he thought I would have to resign. I told her that I was not going to resign, that she would have to fire me because I hadn't done anything to resign for, and my work (according to what she said to me) had been productive and satisfactory and that I had no reason to resign, and she could just fire me, which she did not want to do. She told me I built up my program on personality, and what she meant by that was that I had made myself so close to the people that maybe it could create a problem. I said, "I think anybody that builds a public relations program builds it on personality." I said, "Jesus Christ built his on personality, so I don't see why you should fault me for that." So as I said yesterday, there were people in that black committee, in that Negro program that she had, that were easily influenced and handled by her. And when push came to shove, why, my opinion is that they decided in the meeting that since … Well, see, some of them didn't like the thrust that NAACP was making at that time, right at the beginning of the forties, into the political action field trying to get the ballot. So some of them (one or two of them) on that board were as reactionary as she was, even though they were black and she was white (reactionary, I mean, to the program that was evolving at that time towards the civil rights movement). Nobody could foresee at that time that the civil rights movement would gather the momentum that it did in the next ten to fifteen years. But the strength of it at that time was so far removed from what it had been that the Negroes were going to make it very definite that they were out for the federal courts and the ballot. And of course, with what I told you yesterday, I didn't see any need of keeping people from having tuberculosis and then letting them suffer other things that might be worse even than slavery. So then they just decided. And I don't know how that was done, except that I do know that my services were no longer acceptable. I had gone into the program in 1932 with the state being divided into two what they called organized and unorganized sections. I had at that time, as I remember, about thirteen counties that were in the very poorly developed sections of the state, and they were called unorganized. And I had charge of the beginning of the Christmas Seal program in that area, which when I went into it they gave me a report that was around eighteen hundred dollars for the sale in that area (meaning seal sales among Negroes in 1932, as I remember. Those records are at my house.) Then in 1942 when I left I had worked until I had carried the income from the Negro Seal sale to $42,000, see. And then I had organized, helped to organize, clinics. I'd worked with the Health Department. Another difference we had was, as I told you she had her qualms about venereal diseases: the old-time idea that the way you get venereal disease is a sin. She always connected it with illicit sexual activity. And she did not want me to talk about venereal diseases at all in my program; and I aimed my program toward maternal and infant mortality, and venereal diseases—and tuberculosis—three of the four things. But anyway, she did not want me to enter into any work in connection with venereal diseases—that is, in my public health education program. So I refused to conform there, because I knew that the venereal diseases were a problem. And since at that time we didn't have anything but 606 (and it was a long-time treatment) we had to work even harder in preventive programs than you have to today when you have a kind of quick cure, you know. So that was another one of the kind of endemic frictions, her feeling about anybody who had venereal disease not worth bothering with—they'd been sinning, you know.