Reasons for Naming
- First Black woman graduate of the University of South Carolina School of Law
- Civil rights and women’s rights (women’s health and forced sterilization) lawyer
- Case In re Primus decided in her favor by U.S. Supreme Court
Edna Smith Primus (1944-2019)
By Melissa DeVelvis
Edna Smith was born to Hattie Walker Smith on June 27, 1944. Her mother was a sharecropper in Yemassee, Beaufort County, South Carolina. Edna attended Mather Academy, an all-Black private school in Camden, and attended the University of South Carolina shortly after it was desegregated. She graduated with a bachelor’s in political science in 1966, then worked for the South Carolina Council for Human Relations. She then attended law school at South Carolina, becoming the first woman African American graduate of the law school in 1972. She was also the first woman to pass the new bar exam created by the state’s Bar organization.
In 1973, as the vice president of South Carolina’s American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) chapter, Primus spoke to a group of women in Aiken County whose doctor refused to deliver babies to women on welfare with two or more children unless they were sterilized. After she offered the ACLU’s services for free, the South Carolina Supreme Court disciplinary board reprimanded Primus for violating South Carolina bar rules against soliciting business in 1976. The South Carolina Supreme Court approved this reprimand in 1977, severely damaging her reputation as an attorney. Notably, Smith received no financial gain — she was not compensated for her work. Smith and her attorneys appealed the case, and the U.S. Supreme Court heard her case. The Supreme Court ruled in her favor, and the 1978 In re Primus decision affirms the right of advocacy groups to advance their political agendas through litigation, under the First Amendment.
During this period, Primus formed the firm Buhl, Primus, and Bagby with Herbert E. Buhl III and Carlton B. Bagby. In 1981, she was hired as the managing attorney for Palmetto Legal Services, a non-profit, where she remained until she retired in 2010. Primus also hosted clinics outside work and offered legal advice to women housed at correctional facilities.
Primus died on November 29, 2019 at the age of 75. She had one daughter, LaCelle Primus, with Marcellous Alphonzo Primus. The couple later divorced.
“Columbia City of Women Honoree: Edna Smith Primus, 1944-2019.” Columbia City of Women.
Roberts, Sam. “Edna Smith Primus, Lawyer in Pivotal Rights Case, Dies at 75.” The New York Times. December 12, 2019.