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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 >>

Combating poor conditions for African American patients at Palmetto State Hospital

Simkins speaks at length about the work of the Richland County Citizens' Council towards combating segregation and poor conditions for African Americans at the Palmetto State Hospital in Columbia, South Carolina. In 1965, the Committee began to investigate reports of atrocious conditions for African American patients at the mental health facility. Simkins describes the process by which they sought to uncover and publicly reveal these inequities and their efforts to garner the support of the governor and the state legislature. Eventually, they succeeded in having the facility integrated and conditions improved. The anecdotes she offers throughout are particularly illuminating of the perpetuation of segregation and its consequences into the 1960s.

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:
How did you get involved in the state mental hospital situation in '65? How did that develop?
MODJESKA SIMKINS:
That developed because we found out the conditions under which the people were living at what they called Palmetto Sanitorium.
JACQUELYN HALL:
How did you find out about the situation?
MODJESKA SIMKINS:
Well, we knew it all the time. Our homestead is in that area. But we didn't know it as well as we knew it until I went up in that area in business. And my sister who is now dead, the one who sued the University of South Carolina, was very friendly with a woman who lived on the premises of the state hospital. And this woman worked with us as a helper at the motel. And she would often tell us how these people had no shoes, and the women lacked underwear and gowns and things like that. And we kept talking about it, and finally we did the same type of thing that was done with the DeLaine case. We had people to go in disguise as though they were visiting the patients. And they slipped in cameras and took pictures of the situation there. Now they've often told me that I should have seen how my sister looked the Sunday they went in. But they looked like people that came from a little old town way off somewhere that didn't know they ought to be dressed up when they get to the state hospital. So they got into some of the buildings, some of the buildings that the folks (when I say the folks I mean the workers, nurses or whatever were in charge) weren't too particular about them getting in. So they did get into two of the worst buildings: some of them were leaking, dirty, unscreened and all like that. So then when we got that information—we had a lot of information by mouth, but then we got these pictures—then we asked for an audience with the governor, who was Russell at that time, Governor Donald Russell. Oh, we wrote a letter to the legislature (I ran across a copy of that letter the other day); we wrote a letter to the legislature and sent it to each member. Then we asked the governor for an audience, which he granted. We had that audience on the very day that Churchill died. I'll never forget it: it was a cold, sleety day—that Churchill was buried, I should say. And we asked him if he would visit the hospitals with us. The hospitals were definitely segregated. They had certification on the one downtown, which was called the South Carolina State Hospital, but the certification officers would come in and they weren't even told about this deplorable place for blacks up in the country—or if they'd known, it was part of the same thing: the State Mental Hospital wouldn't have been certified. So we laid all of that out. All of that writing that you saw in those papers, now all of that is my writing, and I could never go through that again. Anyway, with my sister's assistance we found out a lot of these things. The governor, we asked him if he would go, and he said he would. We got outside in this kind of sleety cold day, and we sent back in and asked him if he would go a certain Saturday which would have been about ten days off. And he said he would write and let us know, which he did. Now the press somehow or other found out that we were having this meeting that day, and several members of the press appeared. One of them was from the Charleston News and Courier; his name is Hugh Gibson. I never had met Hugh before, and I never understood why we got such cooperation through their Columbia man, Columbia reporter, because the Charleston News and Courier had always fought me viciously as a Communist sympathizer. But anyway, they cooperated with us in this effort. And Hugh Gibson came out on the steps of the capitol and was talking to me about it; and he said, "Are you that Mrs. Simkins?" I said, "Yes, I am." He said, "I sat there looking at you." He said, "You just kept getting redder and redder in the face just like you were getting fatter or something or other. And I said, ‘I wonder if that old woman is going to explode."’ [laughter] The governor had told the commissioner of the set-up to come down and to bring… Well, they had some plans where they were going to do thus-and-so. And so he had all these plans; you know, some of them were tissue paper and some of them were stiff paper. And it was a roll about this long, and when you opened it out it would be as long as this table here, or maybe longer if you opened the whole thing out. So he kept talking about this was going to be this and this was going to be that. So finally I said, "I am not concerned about the buildings you're going to build. When are you going to get some shoes and some underwear and some gowns for these people, and fix those buildings up?" And that's when I started to raise all hell. And so Hall stammers a little; he's very slow in talking and then he kind of stammers a little bit. And Hall couldn't get off the ground. So we went on this visit. They arranged buses connected with the … you know they had buses to carry the patients around in. So the governor and his wife and two or three others, trustees of the state hospital, and a number of the Citizens' Committee members and others who desired to go went in these buses. We went and visited the one uptown here, and then we went on out to this other. And you would have to go through the literature to find out the differences in this and in that. They had psychiatrists down here at this place; they had no psychiatrists up at the other place—I mean, all these things are outlined in this literature. And after we got through visiting around at what they called the "Upstate" (the colored folks called it "Upstate") we had a gathering in the little chapel space, the little auditorium that they used for the patients up at Palmetto. And the governor and all of us sat in there and listened to certain reports and comments from the people who were in the buses as well as from some of the folk that worked up there. And so one of the men, McLendon, was a doctor up there (he's now dead); he said that they had these psychiatrists. I said, "Name the psychiatrists." And he couldn't do it. Then they had a regular beauty room set up downtown like a beauty parlor down at the S.C. State Hospital, up at Oaknetti they had one of these little, some kind of these little old-time washstands like people used to have back in the country, that you could hang a towel on the side of, sit a wash pan down in a little round hole, with one of these old-time oil lamps like you used to straighten your hair by; and maybe some of the folks I guess weren't even allowed… I mean, it was just an awful situation. So then we disclosed all of that. And the next thing we knew they started those buildings there. There are beautiful buildings up there now. And they did it quickly too! There was one old soul up here at the S.C. State that was real shaken up about all the hell we were raising about the segregated state hospitals. She was crazy about cats, and she had these cats up there. And when the cats had kittens some of them were white and some were black and some were black and white. I was told that Miss Phipps (the cat lover) said that she bet Modjeska Simkins would have commendation for these black and white kittens being together—something in that order. Well, [laughter] they sent another man, Tom McMahan who used to be with the State paper here and I knew him quite well (now he had become publicity man for state hospital). They sent him with some reports on the state hospital, and said they were going to work on this thing of integrating the hospitals. And they thought they could do it in five years. I said, "Five years?" (Some of our members were in there—we never have anything like that unless we have several that we can get off their jobs and get here.) I said, "In five years?" I said, "In Georgia they did it, I think, in less than two years." "Well, when do you think it ought to be done?" I said, "Now! We want it moved right now." Do you know what those cats even did? They brought two or three colored patients down from the Palmetto (black) state hospital and put them in the dining room or something there with the whites, and reportedly they had a little fight (I don't know, they might have generated a scuffle), and they said that's one reason they didn't want them together. And then we wrote a short article that if they had sense enough to know the difference between color and have color prejudice then they had too much sense to be in State Hospital; they ought to be turned out [laughter]
BOB HALL:
[laughter]
JACQUELYN HALL:
[laughter]
MODJESKA SIMKINS:
They also had a way of sending some of the women patients from Palmetto down there to bathe and help to dress the white patients up here at the S.C. (main) Hospital. And one of the old women's stomach got scalded very badly. And so we found out about it. We'd get all kind of news, from both white and colored informers. Sometimes they would bring the news and tell you, and sometimes if they didn't want their names recorded, they'd bring it here and push it through the slot and it'd fall down in the vault over there. So we said that this woman's stomach had been scalded while she was being bathed by one of these black patients, and we didn't know whether it was deliberate or not. Then they'd bring the black male patients from up there at Palmetto down to work on the yards down at this place while the white patients would be sitting in the swings and on the benches. That's nasty! And we just disclosed all that stuff, and it just got so hot that they just had to do something. It just got hot a'plenty.