Edna Smith Primus writes on chalkboard; black & white photo, courtesy of Richland Library

The enduring legacy of Edna Smith Primus

Family members launch endowed scholarship fund to honor pioneering lawyer

To her extended family, Edna Smith Primus was “Aunt Edna,” a humble woman with a brilliant mind. They knew she had been a lawyer for many years, serving clients of limited means in South Carolina.

Imagine their surprise when The New York Times published a lengthy obituary about Primus shortly after her death in 2019.

“The thing about that New York Times piece is that she was so quiet about her accomplishments that a lot of the family didn’t know,” says Donald Murphy, one of Primus’ nephews and principal partner in an Atlanta-based CPA firm. “I mean, obviously, we knew she was an attorney, but we never really understood or knew about the other accomplishments she had while she was alive. She never talked about herself — ever.”

Born to sharecroppers in 1944 in Yemassee, S.C., Primus was among the first Black graduates from the University of South Carolina in 1966. She became the first Black woman enrolled at the School of Law, an accomplishment that appeared to matter little to her.

“As to my feeling on being the first African American woman at the University of South Carolina law school, I didn’t know that when I was admitted and paid little attention to it afterwards. My goal was to graduate,” Primus said years later.

After graduating in 1972, Primus was working for the S.C. Council on Human Rights as a volunteer lawyer. She was sent to Aiken, S.C., where an obstetrician had told pregnant women on welfare with two or more children that he would deliver their babies only if they would agree to undergo sterilization.

As a volunteer for the American Civil Liberties Union, Primus advised one of the doctor’s patients that the ACLU would represent the woman at no charge if she filed a lawsuit against the physician. When the doctor learned of this, he complained to the state bar association that Primus had directly solicited a potential client for financial gain. She ended up receiving a public reprimand from the state Supreme Court.

As to my feeling on being the first African American woman at the University of South Carolina law school, I didn’t know that when I was admitted and paid little attention to it afterwards. My goal was to graduate.

Edna Smith Primus

The ACLU challenged the reprimand and took the case to the U.S. Supreme Court, which, in a 7-1 ruling, stated that Primus’ actions “were undertaken ... to advance the civil liberties objectives of the ACLU rather than to derive financial gain.” Cleared of wrongdoing and having set an important precedent for other public service lawyers, Primus went on to a long career at Palmetto Legal Services.

Several members of Primus’ family have also joined the legal profession, including a niece, Tina Herbert, and a grand-niece, Assatta Herbert, who graduated from the university’s School of Law in 2019. Donald Murphy’s spouse, Janice, is now in her second year at Miles Law School in Alabama.

“She may have really inspired all of us without words,” Janice Murphy says. “Her whole existence, her demeanor and her heart inspired. She exemplified the spirit of a public servant for those who didn’t have a voice.”

On behalf of the Primus family, the Murphys are using a donor-directed fund to establish the Edna Smith Primus Endowed Scholarship at the School of Law. Their hope is to support future lawyers who will devote their efforts to helping those who need it most.

“The Edna Smith Primus Endowed Scholarship will change the lives of future law students as it honors the memory of a remarkable trailblazer who used her courage and intellect to serve the poor,” said law school Dean William Hubbard.  “We are most grateful to Don and Janice Murphy for their vision and generosity.”

“She certainly could have chosen a path that would have led to more remuneration, but that was not her heart," says Janice Murphy. “Those are the kinds of law students we hope this scholarship will benefit.”