This blog entry was written by Graduate Assistant Clara Bertagnolli as part of a class project for FILM 710: Media and Archives. Each student was tasked with the job of designing a project using archived media.
Modjeska Simkins is well-known throughout the state of South Carolina as a strong voice in the fight for civil rights. Though nowadays, few have heard of the desegregation of the South Carolina State Hospital, to Simkins it was another one of her many battles for justice.
You may have heard the South Carolina State Hospital referred to as “Bull Street.” This road runs along the front of the former hospital’s property, a mildly famous mental hospital located not too far from downtown Columbia. Though the campus is now under development, in its heyday it was a densely populated mental institution. Some may consider this common knowledge, but what few people know is that from the early twentieth century up until the late 1960s, this was a white-only facility. Even less well-known is the presence of its segregated counterpart, seven miles away on Farrow Road. This facility was known as the Crafts-Farrow Hospital or the Palmetto State Hospital.
The Crafts-Farrow Hospital was constructed in the 1910s for the specific purpose of housing African American patients. Patients had been segregated by race before on the State Hospital campus itself, but overcrowding at the institution led this method to be impractical (perhaps the board of the Department of Mental Health also felt separation by building on the same campus was too integrated). When the Civil Rights Act of 1964 came around, and it was time to desegregate, some groups found that the Department of Mental Health took too long to do this in their Columbia facilities. Among them was Modjeska Simkins.
In December 1964, Simkins and others lodged a complaint against the Department of Mental Health, accusing them of their non-compliance with the Civil Rights Act. In February, WIS-TV captured a tour of the two state hospital campuses that proved them not only to be segregated, but to be unequal as well. Simkins was a member of that tour group, and most likely was not happy at what she saw.
Modjeska Simkins on the grounds of the State Hospital at Bull Street.
WIS-TV didn’t capture her working on this desegregation again until five months later, but by then it was clear she was displeased with the situation. In a brief interview, she explains that the Department of Mental Health had been cut off from federal funds, and they deserved this for not yet taking action. That same day, William Hall, Superintendent of the State Hospital and State Commissioner of Mental Health, released a statement on the same station, explaining that the Department has begun the process of desegregation, but expects that it will take two to five years. Unfortunately, the WIS-TV collection doesn’t include a response from Simkins, but no doubt, she would not have found that good enough. Simkins was never one to settle in the fight for justice.
Simkins being interviewed about desegregation by WIS-TV
For more films on Simkins, browse the Moving Image Research Collections reference catalog, or view her film on Victory Savings Bank on their Digital Video Repository.
–by Clara Bertagnolli