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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 >>

Effort to use NAACP as a relief organization

Simkins describes an event that was particularly formative in leading to her decision to leave her post as state secretary of the NAACP. Shortly after the Orangeburg boycott, Simkins describes how South Carolina witnessed a rise of White Citizens' Councils that sought to terrorize and undermine civil rights activists in the state. In response, Simkins helped to organize a relief fund to help those who were suffering. Her actions generated disapproval from Roy Wilkins, who firmly reminded her that the NAACP was not a relief organization. Out of concern of the people, however, Simkins defied his orders and used the relief funds she had raised to throw a Christmas party for disadvantaged African American children. As she explains later in the interview, this was one event in a longer chain of circumstances that led to Simkins' disillusionment with the aims of the NAACP.

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:
Were you working mainly in your capacity as secretary of the NAACP, or through the Richland County Citizens' Committee?
MODJESKA SIMKINS:
Mainly through NAACP. But now I had a clash, and it was also in the mind of the man who was the executive director at that time. NAACP through the national office had asked us to get these petitions signed for school desegregation. Then when the power structure stepped down on the necks of the signers and on Negroes generally in those areas, denying them of certain opportunities and privileges and conveniences, any kindnesses, for instance, like liens and lending money on short term and all like that, then we entered into a situation where we actually needed some relief for these people. So about that time the church of DeLaine, J.A. DeLaine who had, you know, left the state (he was in exile from this day until his death), his church was burned in Lake City. In fact, because he was one of them initiating the spearhead movement of the school segregation, the move against segregation he became the target in the area around Lake City, which has always been a volatile spot. And they rode by his house, shot into his house, indignified him in several ways. So one night they came by his house riding up and down and firing, and he fired back and hit one of the cars. And so they took out warrants for him and it became dangerous for him. He left town and went to New York and stayed for years, and then eventually got as far back towards South Carolina as North Carolina, where he died. And Simeon Booker of Jet and another fellow (I've forgotten the second fellow, another fellow from Jet or Ebony, I don't know which—they're all in the same company) and our executive director Albert Redd (R-e-d-d) and Mr. L.A. Blackman (who was NAACP president in Elloree where this fight was also hot—that's in Orangeburg County—and where the Klan threatened him and ordered him out of town, but he never left), Mr. Blackman and I don't remember who else, but at least five men went into the area. They disguised themselves in poor farming area attire and went into the area after DeLaine's church was burned to investigate, and happened to get out just in time to protect their lives from attack. They didn't finally end until about sunset; it was a winter evening. So they came back to Columbia and they were staying at the motel that I was running at that time. And we were sitting around talking when Simeon Booker said, "I just wish there was something we could do about this thing, how we could help these people better being pressured this way." And then he said, "Maybe we could put a little box in Jet, just a little enclosure and tell people to send assistance into this area." He said, "Now, you would have to have a place if goods come in to store them until you could get them distributed." I said, "Well, I have a vacant store, a good-sized place that we could use, and my brother has a vacant space in one of his buildings. And I believe the space would not be a problem." So he put this little box in Jet magazine, and in the course of a week or ten days money, canned foods by the ton and clothing started coming in. At the same time Adam Clayton Powell saw this little thing in Jet, and he invited me up to talk at Abyssinian Church. And his church sent scads of relief materials. One Sunday I had a telephone call. My mother and I had been to some kind of thing, and we were sitting eating dinner that one Sunday once I had gotten home. And I went to the phone; it was Roy Wilkins. Wilkins said he heard of this program we had down here, that money was being sent in and other parts of this program that we had, and that "NAACP was not a relief organization." Those were his words: "NAACP is not a relief organization, and we just won't have it. And any money that you have, you send it back, every penny of it, to whoever sent it."
BOB HALL:
How was it named in the box? Was it NAACP?
MODJESKA SIMKINS:
No. It just asked for relief for NAACP pressured people, you see. No, it didn't go out under an appeal for NAACP.
BOB HALL:
How did people make their checks out, though, when they sent money?
MODJESKA SIMKINS:
We asked them to send them to some kind of relief fund; I've forgotten what we had down, because, you see, we didn't intend for them to go into NAACP general funds. So we worked on that technicality for tax purposes. So this was just a general relief fund. I mean, these people were in trying circumstances. Many of them couldn't get milk for their children, you know. Some of the places, particularly in the Orangeburg area, stopped deliveries of milk—like they'd drop them by the door, on the porch. So I said, "Now Roy, I am not going to send back a damned cent to anybody." I said, "These people are under pressure. You all asked us to get these petitions signed, and that's what we're doing. We have an obligation to these people." I said, "Now, you all sit up there and drink all the Bloody Marys and eat all your big sirloin steaks and drink your scotch and milk, but we are down here under the pressure. And we've got the load on us, and we're going to handle it." So I raised so much hell on the telephone, I got back in the dining room and my mother said, "What in the world was wrong with you? Who was that talking to you?" And I told her it was Roy. Well, my mother was just a firey as she could be, and she told me, "Well, I don't blame you." She said, "Don't you do it. I don't blame you. He's sitting up there out of the fire. Let him stay up there and stew in his own juice." So we went on with that program. And it was not well thought of even by Hinton, who was president of this conference here. He said that we shouldn't do this program. But I just took it on myself. And we had, even at that time, to maneuver the restrictive buying campaign in a way that it appeared that it wasn't directly NAACP, because NAACP was in a very dangerous spot at that time—I say dangerous to the effect that they said they weren't chartered in the state. And they once under Governor James Byrnes's administration threatened to put a $7200. a day fine on the organization. I don't remember now how they got out from under that pressure. But anyway, this is the same Christmas that I'm telling you about that we got the people to go to different places. And in Elloree, where L.A. Blackman was chairman of NAACP, they had had a Christmas program for children every year—I mean all children—just had it out in some city square, I guess. I never was there. But Mr. Blackman called me one morning terribly upset. He said, "You know, they've been having this Christmas program every year, and we were told this week that there's not going to be any Santa Claus for the Negroes this year." That's what the folks down there told him: "There ain't going to be no Santa Claus for the niggers." I said, "Well, Mr. Blackman, we'll have to work on that. We can't have our children being indignified that way." I said, "We'll just have to work out of it." We had some of those relief funds then that I was telling you about. And so I called in Mr. Redd and told him to go to the market and get some oranges and apples—small ones, I said, but nice ones (they were small so we could get as many as possible with the money). And Mr. Blackman told me in the telephone conversation that he did have two hundred pounds of hard candy. One of the churches up North sent this two hundred pounds of hard candy. So, we got the oranges and the apples and some tangerines, and I told him to go down by a liquor store we had and get some two pound bags. I told Blackman to call back, and I told him to get three or four women and have them prepared so that when Mr. Redd got there with these materials they could just bag this stuff. And so the children had their party. So Mr. Blackman told me that one of the Negro mothers was working in a white home. And after school her little boy would go by where his mother was to stay until she got off. So when he went by that day he had his Christmas bag, and she said the little white boy ran to his mother and said, "Momma, the colored people had a better Christmas than we had." [laughter] But now that's just how low-down this thing was. But Mr. Hinton called me and told me he was displeased about it; it shouldn't be done, that NAACP money wasn't to be … handled that way, spent that way. Now he was president of the state conference now, and he demanded something—I've forgotten what (it's been some years now). But anyway, I said, "Mr. Hinton, your children are going to have a nice Christmas, aren't they?" He said, "That's beside the point." Now I could go on and tell you other experiences I've had with NAACP that have alienated me, especially since the program has ground down—it's milk and water now from the national office down. I pay my member-ship every year, as I told you the other day, under protest. And I send them a little note: "I'm paying this under protest, but I want my member-ship in because when I get ready to raise hell, I don't want to raise it free of charge", see.
BOB HALL:
What were their explanations to you about why NAACP couldn't be involved in that kind of program? How did they see their position?
MODJESKA SIMKINS:
Well, in the first place, they weren't a relief program. They didn't have a relief department in the set-up. "It wasn't a relief program": now those were his words. Now what he meant by that I don't know.
BOB HALL:
Did it involve how they raised money them-selves, or what kind of friction it would stir up, or who their benefactors were?
MODJESKA SIMKINS:
I don't know. I don't know that. I didn't go into it. I thought only of the feelings of the children.