I recently mentioned having taken a tour of two historic homes here in Columbia, and that neither my tour mates nor I had ever heard of them. I was (and remain) appalled that these two homes and their historical significance are largely ignored in the South Carolina or African American history curricula taught in our schools. I say this because all four of my children went to school in Columbia-area public schools and two of the young ladies on the tour also attended South Carolina public schools. I also say this because our guide from the Historic Columbia Foundation told us very few school groups visit these two sites. So, today the Carolina Yankee puts on her history teacher hat.* There will not be a test at the conclusion of the post.
For former slaves, owning a home engendered pride and respect in the community. The Mann-Simons Site on Richland Street is the only structure remaining from the compound of structures that served as a home, work place, and spiritual center for four generations of an African American family from 1843 to 1970.The matriarch of this enterprising family, Celia Mann was a former Charleston slave who earned a living as a midwife.
She and her husband Ben DeLane, also a former slave, purchased the property, but it was Celia’s oldest daughter Agnes who built the house and lived there with her second husband, William Simons. Agnes was a baker, seamstress and laundress. Her son, John Simons, later opened a luncheonette, grocery store, and tailoring business on the property.
All the buildings except the original structure were razed during the urban renewal movement that took place between the 1950s and 1970s. Between 2005 and 2012, archeologists recovered nearly 40,000 artifacts from all eras of the family’s occupation. Many of these are on permanent display in the house and have been integral tools in learning about the day-today lives of the Mann-Simons family from the 1840s to the 1970s. Shadow structures have been installed to give guests an idea of what the property looked like during its prime.
Built in the early 1890s, the Modjeska Monteith Simkins House was home to the matriarch of the civil rights movement in South Carolina. Simkins fought for reform during a time when being Black and a woman was difficult, particularly in the South. Born in 1899, Simkins was a graduate of Benedict College and founder of the Victory Savings Bank. She was also active in helping found the South Carolina chapter of the NAACP and served on its first board. Many meetings with civil rights leaders, including future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, were held in the home. Her most significant achievement was bringing about the Briggs v. Elliott lawsuit that called for the equalization of Black Clarendon County Schools with White schools. That case was eventually reworked as one of several cases that directly challenged the “separate but equal” doctrine in the Brown v. Board of Education case in 1954. Simkins also was noted for her work in improving living conditions for the mentally ill in the Black community. Simkins was awarded South Carolina’s highest civilian honor, the Order of the Palmetto, in 1990 by Gov. David Beasley for her work as a teacher, philosopher and humanist.
Do you agree these two homes hold a lot of history and the people who lived in them were remarkable for the times in which they lived? I hope to hear from some of the South Carolina teachers who can shed some light on why these two homes and their owners are seemingly not getting the attention they deserve in history classes across the state.
*Mann-Simons and Monteith-Simkins photos: Historic Columbia Foundation