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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 >>

Benedict College and education of African Americans in Columbia, South Carolina

Simkins describes her education at Benedict College, an institution established by northerners who came to the South following the Civil War in order to educate freed African Americans. Benedict College included primary through post-secondary education and Simkins attended the school all the way through 1921, when she earned her bachelor's degree. Here, Simkins focuses on the racial makeup of the faculty and their general lack of paternalism. In addition, although Benedict was a private school, Simkins explains that no one was turned away for inability to pay and she recalls adults who had come to learn to read and write in her classes.

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

Were the teachers mostly unmarried white women at Benedict? Were the teachers mostly white?
Some of them were couples, married couples, and some of them were widows and some were unmarried. People came down with missionary zeal, and all of them were highly religious. We had to study the Bible every day just like we studied everything else, and we got credits in Bible just like we did in arithmetic or geometry or whatever. And we had to attend chapel every day. It was obligatory that we go to chapel where they had devotional services and often some of the very finest speakers of the period. Today students attend chapel if they want to, and some of them never do. But the college saw that we were exposed to the finest minds that came through and that they could get their hands on. And we had a very good library, and we were supposed to use the library. We each had to own a Bible and take it with us to school, so that each had his Bible when they were ready to hold devotionals—I'm talking about chapel devotionals. There was a prayer meeting every Wednesday evening. And in the dormitories (I don't know about the boys' dormitory; I think it was true in the boys' dormitory), but in the girls' dormitory there were study hours about from seven to nine. There was an area in the dormitories that had… Well, in the one that I lived in a while, just knew about and in the case of bad weather sometimes we had to stay over, they had just like a long classroom with regular schoolroom desks. And you went to a study period from about seven to nine. Of course you could study other times in your room or go to the library, but it was obligatory that you go to that study hall; they called that going to study hour. And you didn't have any more wasted time or pussyfooting in there than you had in the classroom. Then they demanded that you … get your lessons, so to speak. There wasn't "you didn't do that well today; you'll do it tomorrow. You bring it back tomorrow." There wasn't anything like that. You did it today. And they told us that anything that was worth doing was worth doing well. And of course as far as my mother's children were concerned, we didn't have study hall. When we got through with our chores, our supper and our chores we had to get our books and sit around in the room where she was around the fire, where my father was if my father was at home. And we had to get our lessons, so we had study hall too [laughter]
Were there any black teachers in the school?
Yes. Most of them were white, but as some of them were trained and came to graduation… I remember one Miss Cecilia Gary who's still living in Chicago: quite elderly, taught Latin for years. She eventually married a man by the name of Mr. McWhorter and she moved to Chicago. There was a Miss Lula Johnson; there was a Miss Alberta Boykin who is still living (she's living in Chicago too). She was one. In a few more years there were two or three others. But in the beginning … well, there was one that taught mathmatics, a Professor Pegues who taught mathmatics. But for the most part they were white, because they had to be; there weren't enough Negroes trained up to that far for college work at that early time. See, that was just thirty-five to fifty years after slavery. And when they started off they started off mostly training for teachers and preachers. That's what Benedict's, I think its charter or it's plan called for, preparation of ministers and teachers. And of course when they started it took a good while for them, for the slaves to become financially able and keenly conscious of the need of education—that is as a whole—to get them into the spirit of sending their children to college. Then many of them even sent their children empty-handed since they had little or nothing, but they wanted them to learn. And they'd just come in wagons and bring them, maybe with one or two pieces of clothing and some potatoes or something like that. But at that time the school took them in. They didn't turn back any children because they didn't have money. They took them in, and the buildings and grounds were kept up by these people helping to pay their schooling. Few families were financially able to pay fully for their children. Even so, all students were given tasks to help up-keep buildings and grounds. Well, now they get maintenance crews to keep the school, and these school cats walk all around and do nothing but hang around and smoke marijuana or do whatever they want to do. They didn't turn back anybody. Some of them were grown when they came to school, and they'd go into a third grade level. But they'd keep working with them and giving them remedial lessons until they'd catch up or something with their age and their classes. So I've gone to grade school with many a grown person old enough almost to be my parent, because they just came out to school from the country in the rough, you know. But they wanted to learn, just like when you read Up From Slavery. That Booker Washington just went. Man, they just came, but they were never turned down. Never!
And you got no feeling of paternalism or racism at all from your teachers?
No, I didn't see any. I don't remember any earmarks of racism, none. You might call it paternalism if there was extreme interest in their well-being, which I don't think would have been paternalism as we know it today. You see, I've known some whites that have found themselves working with us in the interracial field that showed stronger earmarks of paternalism, that talk about "what we want to do for the Negroes," you know, and that type of thing. But these people served as a Christian duty. They were dedicated to this, almost as a Christian missionary going to the foreign field. Now I know a lot of them have become mercinaries in the power structure, as you perhaps know; many of them that we thought in the beginning were missionaries of burning zeal were tools of the power structure of imperialism, we know that. But there was nothing like that in these people here, because most of them worked for nothing. They came down and they had housing and they had food. And many of them perhaps were people, especially the widows were women whose husbands had left them with some substance. But I know many of them worked for nothing, because they had other means of income. They didn't have Social Security or stuff like that, but very likely they had husbands who had retired with pretty good income and left them income. Some of them were paid eventually, and maybe in the beginning some of them got some type of payment. But, I mean, it was more… My impression through the years was that they really wanted to serve a purpose in the lives of people who had been so … thoroughly disregarded.