University Libraries and Historic Columbia partner to tell Modjeska Monteith Simkins’ story
When Kat Allen was tasked with reinterpreting the historic Modjeska Monteith Simkins House in Columbia, South Carolina, she knew exactly who to contact.
Allen envisioned the home as a public space for both an interpretive, self-guided exhibit and educational center, and University Libraries had the staff and collections to help bring that vision to life.
“We formed a partnership with South Caroliniana Library and South Carolina Political Collections early on because we wanted to utilize their expertise and primary source materials, not just to reproduce them for display in the center, but to actually find ways to incorporate them into the interactive experience of visiting this house,” says Allen, director of research for Historic Columbia and UofSC alumna.
The seemingly small and unobtrusive one-story home, nestled within a mixed historic and commercial district, tells a powerful story. For 60 years, 2025 Marion Street was a gathering place for civil rights activists and home to Modjeska Monteith Simkins, one of South Carolina’s greatest human rights advocates.
Simkins lived at the home, now listed in the National Register of Historic Places, from 1932 until her passing on April 5, 1992.
In addition to the central hallway, three rooms in the home themed “Organize,” “Resist” and “Rise Up” are dedicated galleries for the exhibit “Modjeska Monteith Simkins: An Advocate of the People.” The exhibit curates a selection of reproduced photographs, letters, newspapers, advertisements, fliers and posters selected from SCL and SCPC’s civil rights collections, which include Simkins’ personal papers.
A civil rights legend
Simkins (1899 – 1992) graduated from Benedict College and taught at Booker T. Washington High School before being named the Director of Negro Work for the SC Tuberculosis Association (SCTA), where she learned first-hand “... that poverty and limited access to healthcare and educational opportunities were a ‘menacing problem’ created by Jim Crow segregation.”
In 1942, Simkins lost her position with the SCTA, partly due to her increased involvement with the SC NAACP, which formed in 1939 to combat Jim Crow policies. She was elected secretary in 1941 and held the role for more than 15 years.
Her most well-known work was as a key strategist and organizer for the federal court case Briggs v. Elliott, the first of five cases that comprise the US Supreme Court ruling Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. Briggs, which began as a lawsuit asking for bus transportation in Clarendon County, eventually directly challenged the “separate but equal” doctrine that permeated all aspects of life in the Jim Crow South. Although the exhibit covers this story in depth, including through infographics published in 1950 by South Carolina's superintendent of education, it contextualizes the decades of organizing work that occurred before and after the landmark Brown ruling.
Among the stories featured are Simkins’ numerous fundraising efforts for progressive causes, her work in training the next generation of activists and how she shaped communications strategy for the SC NAACP and later the Richland County Citizens Committee.
Honoring her legacy
Historic Columbia rehabilitated the Simkins home and built the exhibits with funding from the State of South Carolina, the National Park Service, Richland County Conservation Commission and individual contributors and with the blessing of family members, Drs. Henrie Monteith Treadwell and Adrienne Monteith Petty.
“Kat asked me initially if I would brainstorm the project with her,” says Graham Duncan, head of collections and curator of manuscripts at SCL.
“We had a small space to work with, but great collections at SCL that we could pull from to fill it,” he says.
“She and I settled on the idea of trying to frame as much of the experience of the Simkins House as we could through how various forms of media told the story of the civil rights struggle in Columbia,” says Duncan.
SCL holds many items used in the exhibit including original copies of the African American-owned newspapers The Lighthouse and Informer (1941-1954) and The Palmetto Leader (1925 – 1960s). It also holds the papers of South Carolina civil rights leaders John Henry McCray and Reverend Joseph A. Delaine, who were contemporaries of Simkins.
One activity in the “Organize” room invites patrons to closely examine how reporting of the 1926 Lowman family lynching differed between white-owned and African American-owned papers. Visitors can pick up reproductions of original newspaper reports, inspect them and discern the differences.
The “Resist” room has an entire wall covered with examples of the hundreds of letters Simkins received from around the country following a call to action published in Jet magazine. NAACP supporters and members from across the country sent money, prayers and gratitude to both Simkins and the South Carolinians who continued to fight for desegregation in the aftermath of Brown v. Board, despite significant backlash from white citizens.
"We worked together with Kat to digitize a slew of handwritten letters used as wallpaper at the house,” says Kate Moore, SCPC reference archivist.
“It’s such a great concept for the house because now those letters can be read by all the people who visit. It provides a whole new audience for Simkins’ letters and greatly expands the overall impact her collection has,” Moore says.
Simkin’s papers — her personal collection of writings, notes, correspondence and other materials — are housed at SCPC, where they are open to students and the public for research.
The third room, “Rise Up,” speaks to action. Visitors are faced with protest signs that read “GENOCIDE in Orangeburg,” Segregation is America’s Shame” and “Silence KILLS.” Beneath the sign display is a booklet, provided by SCL, produced in 1945 by the Southern Negro Youth Congress, which was a bi-racial, youth-led organization that Simkins advised. The booklet, titled “Would You Smile?” highlights racial disparities that remain familiar today. It was originally conceived to inspire empathy and build solidarity among the white working class.
Simkins house visitors can flip through the booklet and read passages including:
“If you were a Negro, you would want more chances for Negro boys and girls to become doctors and lawyers and engineers and nurses; to become streetcar motormen and chemists and architects. You would want for them the same opportunities afforded other Americans.”
Allen says working together as a team ensured they made the history of the civil rights movement available to the current younger generation.
“By relying on SCL and SCPC collections, we literally show our patrons part of the story of just how much work has been done for civil rights. We can show them where things like African American-friendly businesses, restaurants and hotels used to be, how difficult it was then, and how much dedication so many people exhibited during those very hard times,” Allen says.
A lasting impact
The Simkins House places her work and her legacy in a physical space. It invites visitors to get to know Simkins, that she was not only a person who lived in the house, but that the work done from the house, and the meetings held there, had a serious and lasting impact on both the South Carolina and national civil rights movements.
“Simkins is a very rare example of someone who really, truly never gave up. And through that perseverance, she did ultimately change South Carolina and our nation for the better,” Allen says.
“Cases like Brown v. Board of Education didn’t come out of the blue. They came out of organizing. They came out of countless meetings. They came out of finding plaintiffs, figuring out how to house attorneys in town when they couldn’t stay at hotels and making sure that they were safe,” she says.
“We’re still facing the same issues Simkins faced throughout her life. We’re still talking about civil rights, racial health disparities, educational disparities and voting rights.”
“We don't just want people to take away this civil rights story,” Allen says.
“Yes, that is a huge part of her legacy, but that wasn't all she cared about. She cared about access to health care. She cared greatly for the labor movement and workers’ rights. She was absolutely for what would be called ‘progressive’ ideals today, but she was advocating for them 70 years ago. I hope that's what people will take away from this,” she says.
The project has also had a lasting impact on its participants.
“Our partnership with Historic Columbia provided us a very different and very rewarding type of work,” Moore says.
“This is a place where people come to immerse themselves, and the idea that SCPC provided materials to give visitors that wonderful experience feels good to us,” she says.
Moore’s colleague at SCL echoed that sentiment.
“We worked really well together on the project, and the fact that we did most of the work virtually and during COVID is amazing,” Duncan says.
“It's just great to have a historic preservation organization here that we can partner with. They're in the business of preserving historic structures and sites. We're in the business of preserving documentary material about people, and it's a natural partnership.”