In the 1950s, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. became known as the leader of the civil rights movement. More than 20 years before Dr. King, Modjeska Simkins began her own work for the civil rights of African Americans.
Modjeska was born in Columbia, South Carolina in 1899. When she was a child, her father took a temporary job in El Dorado, Arkansas. The Simkins found that some people in their new town did not want African Americans living there. Violence and threats were used to scare the Simkins family into leaving. Modjeska's father remained to finish the job, but had to send his family back to South Carolina for their safety. Modjeska had learned at a young age that African Americans were often treated unfairly.
In 1921, Modjeska graduated from Benedict College in Columbia. A year later she began teaching at Booker T. Washington High School. Modjeska had to quit her teaching position when she married in 1929. At the time, South Carolina schools could not employ married women. Looking for ways to continue serving the community, in 1931, Modjeska took a job with the South Carolina Tuberculosis Association. The job required her to work in poor African American neighborhoods. At work, she observed poverty first hand. She found that there were few health care services being provided to African Americans. Modjeska helped to establish health clinics in these neighborhoods. As she began to make a difference through her job, Modjeska became known for representing the needs of the African American community.
In the 1930s, the government offered jobs to people affected by a poor economy. Some higher-paying jobs that were being offered to white people were not being offered to African Americans. Modjeska worked to change the federal government's policy. As a result of her efforts, many African Americans were offered jobs as teachers and professionals.
In the 1940s and 1950s, Modjeska helped create over a hundred branches of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) around South Carolina. The group worked to integrate schools, improve jobs and housing, and encourage political participation for African Americans. Modjeska believed one of the best ways to make change was to vote. She made sure that African-Americans knew their voting rights and participated in elections. For the rest of her life, Modjeska dedicated herself to the idea of civil rights and opportunity for all people.
After Modjeska Simkins' death in 1992, her home in Columbia, South Carolina, was preserved and opened to the public. Today, it serves as a reminder of the woman who devoted over 60 years of her life to education and civil rights.