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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 >>

Learning discipline and social justice in childhood

Simkins describes her parents' efforts to ensure that their children were well-behaved, well-educated, and cognizant of social injustice. Particularly interesting is how Simkins recalls that her mother used to always read accounts of lynchings and racial violence to the children so that they were aware of such injustices. Also imprinted in Simkins' mind was her father's practice of standing up to acts of intimidation, intended to instill fear. She goes on to describe the role of discipline in the household, identifying her mother as the primary disciplinarian.

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

She made particular effort to acquaint us with things as they were, no matter how cruel or atrocious they might be. She read just about all the lynchings, and how these people were mutilated or treated during lynchings. In fact, we were in Huntsville, Alabama when they had a lynching there, and my father told us how one of the lynchers came in and showed him the finger of this Negro. My father was a fearless man. He came in and showed it to my father, as though to intimidate him, I guess. My father was noted for the backing of chimneys. You remember seeing that, perhaps, but there's a certain way if you have a fireplace that you lay the bricks in the chimney that makes sure that you're going to have a draft instead of smoke blowing out. And he was noted for that. Even in his late years here in Columbia it was well known that he just had a kind of special skill in backing chimneys. And so when they built these factories they'd have rows and rows of factory houses all looking just alike. You've seen some of them; they've passed out of existence right now. But then he would have to go and back the chimneys in every one of those factory houses. And he was backing a chimney one Saturday afternoon when this fellow came in and showed him this finger that was cut off this Negro. I guess they wanted to intimidate him as a Negro, you know, knowing that he was well thought of, I guess, by the construction company. But my father was a fearless man. He offered to fight them with his trowel and hammer. They didn't bother him anymore. I guess most of the Negroes in that area were kind of groveling creatures, you know. And the lynchers just "met a pharoah that knew not Joseph," as the Bible says. I didn't have any problem; they didn't try to intimidate him anymore. Now that was in Huntsville, Alabama. My oldest brother was born in Huntsville while we were there, while my father was there working.
Are there any differences between your mother and your father? How did they get along with each other?
Fine. They had maybe little tiffs like the average family will have. My father never wanted her to whip us, so most of the things would come up about that. And then my father was a very soft-hearted man. I am like that myself; I just can hardly turn away a person that appears to be in trouble or in need. So my father was like that. And then my father was a very soft-hearted man. I am like that myself; I just can hardly turn away a person that appears to be in trouble or in need. So my father was like that. And although he had an income above average for that time he would sometimes help a fellow, and my mother would say, "Oh that no-good, you're helping him and you need it for your children." And she used to tell me sometimes, "You're going to be just like your daddy; you 're going to die in the poorhouse. You give this and you give that, and you can't turn anybody down." And I'm still the same way—I think about it all the time—I'm very soft when it comes to need or apparent need. So most of the differences that I remember were concerning that: his soft-heartedness, the ease with which he could be … some-times taken in, I would say. Well, she was the strong hand when it came to maintaining financial stability. Now he didn't throw away any money like some men might on drink or gambling or something like that. His only weakness was that he was soft-hearted toward any person in apparent need. And of course she always felt that she had to hold that tight hand on what she had. And when he came home, I've seen him many a time come and throw that pay envelope right in her lap. She didn't demand it, but that's what he'd do. He'd come home: "Well, here it is, Rachel." He'd buy the groceries and come home with a sack of groceries on his back. And you could take two dollars then and buy enough groceries almost to have enough for a mule to pull. He'd have this bag across his back when he'd walk from the carline down to our house, about a mile and a quarter. And what he had left from the groceries, then the bag of candy he bought every Saturday for the children. "Here it is, Rachel;" he'd give her the whole envelope. Well, she was the financier of the family.
Was she also the disciplinarian of the children?
Yes, for the most part she took care of that. I guess that came about in large measure because when we first were coming up… You see, before time for me to start school they did mostly this traveling. Then when it was time for me to be put in school, then they settled down in our homestead that we'd had all the time. So then my father would go different places and work, maybe two or three months at a time, or three or four weeks or whatever it was. Sometimes he would go in a group and work a while and maybe come back weekends or like that. So at that time she had us to herself. And she believed in using a switch. And sometimes he would say, "Oh Rachel, let the children alone; they're not as bad as you say they are." And I've seen on two or three occasions that he'd try to stop the whipping. She would just turn the child loose and give him three or four whacks [laughter]. And she said, "I don't know how long I'm going to live with these children, but I know if I don't straighten them out somebody will." Now we weren't that bad, but she didn't let us get an inch. She said, "If I give you an inch you'll take an L." Whatever that is, that's what she always said.
Were your parents very strict with you?
Well, I would say they were positive. Now, not strict in the sense that sometimes people think, that they've had a hard, fast rules that you were used to doing this. I've heard my mother say sometimes if you dared… Of course back then children didn't hardly ask their mothers why, you know. Your mother or father'd say thus and so, that was it; that was the law of the Medes and the Persians. But sometimes there was an occasion when she'd say, "Now listen, you do this because I said to." Sometimes you'd get to that point. Now strictly from the standpoint of being almost what you might say cruel in trying to see that something would be done, it was more being just positive. And you understood that evidently when they said that they'd thought it through.