One and one-quarter linear feet, 1903-1968, papers of Rebecca Margaret Reid (1879-1965), impart something of the remarkable life and accomplishments of this native of the Mayesville area of Sumter County, S.C., as revealed through a collection of biographical sketches, photographs, correspondence, newspaper clippings, and miscellaneous printed materials; items pertaining to a 1925 Women’s Student Pilgrimage to Europe; South Carolina Poetry Project notes; information compiled about socialized medicine; and the Rural Service Award bestowed posthumously upon Miss Reid.
“Beck” or “Bep,” as Rebecca was more familiarly known to her family and friends, was the daughter of William Moultrie Reid, Jr., and Adelaide Wilson Reid. Through both parent’s lineage she was connected to revered figures of nineteenth-century Presbyterian elite: granddaughter of William Moultrie Reid (1798-1884), Presbyterian minister and teacher at Columbia Theological Seminary; niece of Benjamin Franklin Wilson, first president of Converse College, 1890-1902; and great-niece of John Leighton Wilson (1809-1886), early Presbyterian missionary to western Africa.
After graduating from Converse College in 1903, Miss Reid taught high school for several years in South Carolina and Mississippi. In 1918 she became National Student Secretary of the YWCA, an organization she had been involved with since her days at Converse. In this capacity she traveled throughout the United States and in 1925 participated in the Women’s Student Pilgrimage to Europe. The women reported on various student movements in England, Holland, Germany, Czechoslovakia, Austria, and France.
Reid returned to South Carolina in 1928 to teach at Sumter High School. Four years later she became Director of the Department of Public Welfare in Hampton, S.C. According to a memorial prepared for her funeral service, it was during this period that Reid was “drawn more and more into movements for helping the socially and economically unprivileged, especially the Negro population suffering from discrimination. She took a courageous stand, far ahead of her time, often at the risk of misunderstanding and hostility.” While she sympathized deeply with those less fortunate than herself, she had little patience with those she felt were the cause of their own misfortunes.
In an undated letter written from Hampton some time around 1932 and intended to fill friends in about her daily activities, Reid told of having interacted with a man who wanted assistance in engaging a doctor, “for there is to be a new baby and no money,” a request that provoked from her a lecture “on having more children than one can support and...the generally accepted idea here that the Lord is responsible.” Her work brought her into daily contact with persons struggling to overcome barriers of unemployment, poverty, hunger, racial oppression, and deplorable public health conditions. While she prayed that “the Kingdom may come in me and through me even here in Hampton,” she confessed, “This is the place to see human nature at its worst and at its best, and it is certainly an adventure in human relationships.” Ironically, she concluded, “It is a most bewildering world, and I am quite sure that there is a lot connected with this relief work that is doing the same damage to people that was done to them when Rome was filled with a howling mob, yet it is unearthing conditions and forcing people to face them that may work toward right[e]ousness.”
Rebecca Reid became director of the federal government’s State Adult Education program in 1933. The following year she began her involvement with one of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal programs, the National Youth Administration. In 1941 she purchased a log cabin and pecan farm in Sumter and spent the next twenty-four years as a tireless advocate for the disadvantaged.
Her socially progressive concerns are evident in the topics of newspaper clippings Reid assembled between 1931 and 1963: peace movements, international affairs, civil rights, health care, education, and women’s issues. In a letter dated 17 October 1956 she laments the conditions of health care for the elderly, “I only wish there were better provisions made for our aged and tired than an insane asylum. For they are not insane.” She became interested in socialized medicine and collected information on the state of health care in the United States and Great Britain. Her correspondence also alludes to frequent run-ins with the Ku Klux Klan and the White Citizens Councils. Both groups were disturbed by Reid’s work on behalf of African Americans. At times she became disillusioned with the politics of the South, writing on 19 October 1957 that she was “working on plans to alleviate tensions in this prejudice ridden, hate seething adolescent civilization of ours here in the South.”
Such sentiments were well rooted by the 1950s, for as early as 1948 Reid had written to commend WIS radio news editor and commentator Grenville E. Seibels II for his “generous and intelligent comments relative to the Civil Rights legislation.” His response hints at the hurdles facing socially progressive Southerners, “An attempt at frank and fair discussion of such problems as civil rights is not always welcomed in these parts....It’s my belief that many Southerners...have fallen into the habit of letting their so-called leaders do their thinking for them. To help break this habit, I sometimes purposely air an unpopular, or minority, opinion — to stir up some sort of reaction in the listener.”
Writing in October 1956 Reid suggested that the Citizens Councils “have the right, maybe, to rabble-rouse for what they feel to be so, but for them to try to force me, by threats and lies, to tell me what I can think or feel or do, that is Hitlerism in its essence.” “The KKK opens its meetings with prayer, burns a cross and disbands singing ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’ —the light is darkness indeed,” she asserted on 23 September 1956. “And the so-called ‘White Citizens Councils’ are the KKK under another name—more vicious and evil than the original, because they refuse to admit what they are.”
“After the recent persecution and effort to drive away the chairman of the bi-racial group in Sumter,” she went on to say, “a letter was circulated among all the members telling the story of our existence and warning them to be on the watch for any organization that ‘thinks differently from us’....A copy of this letter was sent to...our chairman, with the warning written across the top: ‘Why don’t you leave Sumter? You are a fool to stay here.’ Signed KKK.” People who didn’t support the White Citizens Councils, she noted, were “scared to say so....and the scaredest people are the ministers of the churches!!!!” Through it all, however, “The spirit of the Negro leaders here is past understanding, and they give us a gleam. Surely they are a superior race.”
By 1962, as South Carolina continued to grapple with issues of race relations, the Cold War had intensified. Rebecca Reid believed that South Carolina had not learned from Mississippi the true motivation for social justice, but she thought it had come to know that “‘this is enlightened self interest; this is the way we will progress in industrializing the State...this is good business to keep the peace even to the integration of a few.’” Questioning rhetorically whether Clemson University would accept its first black student the following year, she wondered whether the matter might not be settled by Nikita Khrushchev. “We somehow felt so selfishly secure with his missiles so far away in Russia,” she wrote. “Surely he would not use them without jeopardizing his own, his own grandchildren; then diabolically he dumps the implements of death and worse than death right in our own back yards. Why didn’t we know that the world is too small in 1962 for anyone to be secure anywhere, not even in outer space.”
The death of Rebecca Reid occasioned a number of letters celebrating her life and accomplishments. Longtime colleague and friend Oolooah Burner, of Little Switzerland, N.C., wrote to Alice Spearman on 13 September 1965 enclosing a memorial gift. “But for Becky,” Miss Burner said, “since she can no longer trudge the roads to carry money for coal or food or school lunches to the ‘Aunt Mollies’ or their grandchildren in need...I’m sending you this check to use as you will know how best to apply it for her sake....What a rich, valiant, intrepid, indomitable soul was hers!! And what a gift to us all!” Fred M. Reese, Jr., pastor of Bethel Methodist Church in Columbia, S.C., expressed like sentiments in a letter of 31 January 1966 to Rebecca Reid’s sister, Mrs. C.W. Riser, of Marion, “You know, of course, how much she loved youth and undergirded all of us who feebly struggled to stand on our feet. I remember several times when she shook her fist and said to me ‘sic ‘em!’ This characterized so much her attitude of tenacity in combating bigotry and ignorance and in exalting human worth and dignity.”
The significance of Rebecca Reid’s work was formally recognized in 1968 when she was awarded the Rural Service Award from the Office of Economic Opportunity for her efforts to alleviate the problems of rural Americans. Hers was the only award granted posthumously and one of the few signed by outgoing director Sargent Shriver.