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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Modjeska Simkins, November 15, 1974. Interview G-0056-1. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Unique positions of power for African American and white women in the South

Simkins discusses women's leadership abilities, focusing specifically on conditions that shaped women's abilities to speak out in the South during the early twentieth century. Of particular interest are Simkins' ruminations regarding the especially unique situation for African American women in the South. Because black women were not targets of racial violence to the extent that black men were and because of their place within the white southern family as nursemaids or domestic servants, they were better able to speak out against social injustice. Simkins explains why white women similarly held unique positions of power in campaigns for social justice, particularly the anti-lynching movement, because of their status in the social hierarchy.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Modjeska Simkins, November 15, 1974. Interview G-0056-1. 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:
There were a few white women who took stronger stands than the men did? Do you think that the women were stronger than the men?
MODJESKA SIMKINS:
I think that's true. And I think that it's true even among the blacks today.
JACQUELYN HALL:
Among both white women and black women?
MODJESKA SIMKINS:
Yes, I think even today. I've always believed that if we had more women in government … well, you know, the men have made a mess out of government all over the world and there is no place that they haven't made a mess out of. So, I … well, I may be wrong, because maybe in Switzerland they haven't and up in Sweden and up in those places, but wherever else they have been, they have made a mess out of it. And ordinarily, when you get these people speaking out, you get women speaking out …
JACQUELYN HALL:
How do you account for that?
MODJESKA SIMKINS:
Well, when it comes to black women, you know, it has always been said in the South that the only two classes of people free in the South are white men and black women. I know that you have heard that statement. And the mother instinct in them is one thing. You know, a cat or a bird or anything like that will fight for its children and the other is that ordinarily, in very few instances have Negro women been lynched. They lynched black men. And so, very often, the woman got away with the things that a man wouldn't have gotten away with saying or doing. And I think that the social structure had something to do with that in that the number of the better conditions of the white homes … I mean better conditions financially, they had black servants that just about ran those homes, raised the children and all, you know. This is in Gone With the Wind, which I guess you've seen. Well, the fine manners as to how the girls should behave when they went somewhere and all of that, and just how they should express themselves and all, those fine niceties, were often transmitted to them by slave women, many of them were wet nursed by black women, before they had all these baby foods and things. I had a man tell me one day that one of the biggest fights he was ever in was because one day one of the boys told him that he had wet nursed at a black woman. And he said, "I loved my wet nurse like I did my mother." So, many times there was that carry over that- they maybe didn't realize. I'm talking about where they had trusted and beloved black servants, you see? Many of those people were buried in their cemeteries. There are many black servants buried right on the square, the cemetery square, with the people that they worked with for years. And sometimes these situations are far more involved than you would dream, just looking at it on the surface. But you take the case of Rosa Parks. If that had been a Negro man, they would have thrown him out on his can. Don't you know they would have? Out of that bus. And they put her in jail, but they certainly didn't abuse her. And take Hayward down there in Mississippi. If they were whipped a thousand times, I should have been in South Carolina. I've never had one weight laid on me and I've never even had someone give me any big talk and I have done enough big talking to be put in jail fifteen times myself. But I guess that sometimes they marked me up as a fool, they'd say, "Well, that woman is crazy, but …" [laughter]
JACQUELYN HALL:
Well, how do you account for white women being more outspoken than white men?
MODJESKA SIMKINS:
I don't know, except that they realize, as the women in the old Interracial realized, that … you see, back there, when they first started that Interracial, it was not only against lynching, but fundamentally it was against the white men telling that lie all the time that they had to protect their women just as though the women didn't know when to say no and when to say yes.
JACQUELYN HALL:
And that came up in the meetings?
MODJESKA SIMKINS:
Yes, that was understood. That's one of the things, if you look back into the establishment of the old interracial movement here in Atlanta and some white women in other places … you see, white men always said that they were protecting white womanhood and they wanted to keep them pure. And they cloistered their women. Even in slavery, they would cloister their women, but they would go out and have babies by the slaves. And then, often these men in these prominent white families had their black paramours that their families knew about, because they didn't want to violate these young white women that were in those families. And even during slavery, some of the most beautiful black slaves, mulattos, were sold into the slave markets of New Orleans where they were bought to be mistresses of a number of sons of these masters. And of the masters themselves. And Thomas Jefferson had two or three daughters sold down there as slaves.
JACQUELYN HALL:
In the meetings of the Interracial Commission, did the white women talk about this situation?
MODJESKA SIMKINS:
No, it was known. They didn't talk about that. I don't remember that coming up, but I do know that when you look back into the history of it, that's what started it. They became incensed because the men were always talking about them just like they were helpless, you know, snivelings. And they knew that a lot of times, they were lying. And then, some of them felt that it was a reflection on their intelligence. And then, a number of them knew that their men were lying. Many times, when they did this and were going on like that, they realized that … although I never heard this said in a meeting, I've had it expressed to me otherwise, that a lot of this thing that men were talking about protecting them from black men was because they knew how they were violating black women and they just thought that the shoe would turn the other way.