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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 >>

Working to integrate public schools and facing housing challenges

Simkins addresses the process of school integration in Columbia, South Carolina, from the mid-1960s into the 1970s. Simkins describes how she participated in efforts to urge the school board to enforce desegregation and challenged their initial desire to only have "qualified" students integrate. She goes on to describes how she and others challenged the closing of Booker Washington High School and explains how issues of housing continued to inhibit the overall success of integration in the community.

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

ACQUELYN HALL:
Could you tell me a little bit about how the integration of the Columbia public schools came about?
MODJESKA SIMKINS:
Well, it just came about that we had met with the board. Getting into the board meeting was almost like getting into the sanctum sanctorum of the temple. They had what they called Negro supervisors, supervisors of the Negro schools. They were kind of like a buffer state, and they'd tell you to see the Negro supervisors. And we finally said, "We didn't elect the supervisors; we elected board members, and we're coming to the board." When they would tell us that we would say, "We are coming to the board." And so on one occasion when we said we were coming to the board we told the colored people, we said, "Let's go down there and pack the place, 'til it's just black in there." So we had them packed on all the stairs going up there on the second floor meeting room.
JACQUELYN HALL:
When was this?
MODJESKA SIMKINS:
This must have been in '64, I guess. And they would listen to us. As some of our reports on the ese meetings will show, they would listen to us, but they were just as stoney faced as poker players. And we even caught one of them passing a note, "Say nothing. Don't answer anything." We put that in one of those reports. They were trying to pass it over one of our members, but she caught what was on the note. So finally, we went to that meeting. When we got down there, I don't know how they found out, but all the TV folks were down there. They had TV machines all outside the place and inside the place too. I guess somebody who reported generally on the school board's meetings must have told the other folks about it. One of them even came out here and got an interview with me—brought his little camera out here, and had that in the paper leading up to this meeting down there. And then after we saw we weren't going to get anywhere we just issued this public release, and said, "When school opens, take your children to the school of your choice." And that's what a lot of parents did. And that was it. Then they tried to tell us that they could take only qualified students. And we took the position that if they called themselves having legal schools for everybody, if they was qualified in one school they were qualified in another. So they couldn't get by on that. There was a letter in there to that effect, the position we took at that time. So that was the end of that. They had at that time a supervisor who was at another meeting I went to for some other purpose. When I was leaving he said, "I'd like to speak to you." He said, "There's not but so much that I can say or do, but don't you all let up in the fight." And at that time they had decided to build a big black high school way out at the other end of the black neighborhoods. And he said, "They already have the lagoon"—it was some term they have for a very large septic tank. But they already had the site selected and the lagoon constructed. They had that all done. He said, "They've got that sewage thing set up. They're ready." And they were going to haul our students from lower Richland maybe twenty or twenty-five miles to upper Richland. They tried for ten years to get rid of Booker Washington High School. And it was even carried in the State; an article is somewhere in our papers that the Negro-black activist Modjeska Simkins had been instrumental in preventing the city school system from closing Booker Washington school. They didn't close it until '74, and they wouldn't have done it then if we'd have gotten the NAACP to move. The NAACP executive director here ordered them, according to the youth chairman and the local chairman, to have nothing to do with the Booker Washington school situation. If we had known that the Citizens' Committee would have moved in on a provision in the school code that if people in a section want to use the facilities that are closed by a school system they have to make themselves known within so much a period of time. And when we found out… As I asked Mr. Broadwater to look into the situation, when he looked into it he found out that the chairman at the time was against it.
JACQUELYN HALL:
Why did they want to close the Booker T. Washington school?
MODJESKA SIMKINS:
They wanted to take over that for the University of South Carolina. They've got all the Negroes, big Negro section over on the area where the University was moving. Some of those people were living in property that had been left them by their parents since back in slavery. Just cleaned it out. They set up an independent land purchasing thing called the Columbia Development, or something like that, that went in and bamboozled and hoodwinked a number of the Negroes to give them different prices for their land. And then they moved down to everything but the school; the school used to be in the center surrounded by everybody. Then they decided to gobble that in, and we couldn't do anything about it. We asked them to use it, way back ten years prior to that we asked them to use it for a laboratory school. I understand (I didn't see them), but I understand a number of the white students from the university (before we got some blacks in there) were interested in the colored children: that they went down and offered their assistance in teaching. You know, they just wanted to work with the children. It could have been used well as a laboratory school, but they finally just took it over. I got so that I was just disgusted and tired of fooling with it. I guess I could have fought longer. But they finally had some kind of little organization here—still have it—called … something for the alumni. But I don't go to it; I don't even bother with it one way or the other. The thing is done. It's done; there's no use trying to smooth it over with some kind of icing. Just let it be naked and bare and hurt.
JACQUELYN HALL:
When did the first black children go to the public schools in the city?
MODJESKA SIMKINS:
It must have been in '65, I guess it was.
JACQUELYN HALL:
How integrated are the schools now?
MODJESKA SIMKINS:
Well, as far as the housing patterns will allow it, I'll say they're about integrated about as much as they can be. You see, the exponents in the power structure have eyes like eagles; they can see way down the road. I remember once when Thurgood Marshall was here we were talking about this school situation. He made a statement that I've never forgotten; he said, "The solution to the school segregation program is going to be the housing pattern." And at that time(we were then in the voting case), the school officials were already looking down the road along with the real estate officials (they had a number of white real estate people on the board). They could foresee where Columbia was spreading, and they arranged to move the black element in a certain direction. When they went there the schools were carried there. So then when the schools were set up and the housing patterns set up there weren't many whites in those given areas to go into those schools that were in predominantly black areas. But they foresaw that long ago. Not only did they foresee that, some of those real estate rascals on the board saw even where they were going to build white schools and bought up land as future investment, knowing that the schools were going there and the residences would move with them, you know. We mentioned that in some of our papers too. They thought we didn't see it; but we saw it, about real estate members of the board profiteering on school building, on school situations. Now the other thing that we were instrumental in was integrating the public hospital here, the tax-supported hospital. We used to have a black unit down here; and the whites and all these big units across the street, they moved out to a new situation right straight ahead (you can almost see it if you stand in the middle of that street out there). And we were able to do a lot in that direction. In that time that we were integrating the state hospital and the Richland County hospital situations, we had full cooperation of HEW. HEW changed a lot after the Nixon administration opened up. And we could not have done after the Nixon administration what we did prior in the Johnson administration. All we had to do was to let them know we had a problem here—and I guess that was true in other states—and we'd get a call saying they were coming in to Columbia, and they'd be stopping at such-and-such a place and they'd get in at such-and-such a time. "And before we go in to look at the situation we'll be over and talk to you about it." We had that type of cooperation from HEW with the schools and hospitals. Now the people in power in those institutions didn't know that we had that clout, but we had it; our files will show it. There was an appropriation for the state hospital of over $700,000 that was held up for months because of the stand that we took.