Monday, March 30, 2015

It’s All in the Family

Euriah Simpkins, age 50

While I was preparing to participate in a Black History program at my church, the program director suggested that participants might want to talk about a noteworthy family member. It was during this search for a subject that I rediscovered the story of my great-great-great Uncle Euriah (E.W.) Simpkins.

From the 1930s to the 1960s in South Carolina, public libraries were not accessible to African-Americans because of segregation. In order to have access to library service, Willie Lee Buffington, a white Methodist Minister, and Euriah W. Simpkins, a black school teacher and principal, came up with the idea of Faith Cabin Libraries. Buffington asked people from all over the country to donate books for over 30 years to create a series of log cabin libraries for African-Americans to use. They became known collectively as “Faith Cabin Libraries.”

Willie Lee Buffington and Simpkins

Willie Lee Buffington was born in 1908 in Saluda, South Carolina. His parents were poor. When Willie Lee was nine he met Euriah Simpkins, a black school teacher and principal who would play an influential part in Buffington’s life. Simpkins was walking by while Buffington was making mud pies. When one of his pies broke, he started to cry. Simpkins spoke to him kindly and told him to “be a man.” This started a wonderful friendship that would last for many years. Simpkins gave Buffington books to read and encouraged him to go to college. Some accounts even say that Simpkins sent Buffington $1 a month while he was in high school and college.

When Euriah Simpkins dedicated a new black school in 1931 in Edgefield, South Carolina, Buffington was astonished that there were no books for the students. After thinking about the situation, Buffington wrote five ministers whose names were listed in a Sunday school publication and asked them each for a book. Only one minister answered, Reverend L. H. King of St. Mark’s Methodist Church in Harlem, New York. Reverend King sent 1,000 books that were taken up by his congregation.

Simpkins on site of construction of the first Faith Cabin Library

Faith Cabin Library, Saluda, South Carolina

The new school in Edgefield now had more books than it needed, so Buffington and Simpkins called a community meeting to ask if the local black community wanted to build a library. Of course they wanted a library. Donors of both races provided materials and the African-American community provided the labor. They built the new library near Saluda, South Carolina. The library received attention in magazine articles and people began to send more books and another library was started in Ridge Spring, South Carolina, approximately 10 miles away from Saluda.

Dedication of the Ridge Spring Faith Cabin Library

Buffington continued to create libraries for blacks until the 1960s. His friend and mentor Euriah W. Simpkins died on July 7, 1944. Euriah helped plant the seed for the Faith Cabin Libraries in South Carolina. My mother, Anita Jones, and cousin Reverend Joseph Walker remember the reverence with which their grandmother Florence Bates Clark and great uncle Michael Bates spoke about their uncle “Eury.”

While I was doing research on Uncle Eury, some of the resources I used were available through the Birmingham Public Library and others were available through the Internet:

Ancestry Library Edition – This database can only be used in Birmingham Public Library. I found the death certificate for Euriah (E.W. Simpkins) and his brother-in-law and my great-great grandfather, Moses Bates.

Genealogy Resources – A great page that has various genealogy resources that are available at Birmingham Public Library as well as information on how to start doing genealogical research.

Introduction to Genealogy Classes – Take a look at these classes offered by the Southern History Department at the Central Library.

South Carolina Archive and History Foundation – I used this website to look for Rosenwald Schools in Saluda County. I found E.W. Simpkins mentioned as teacher at the Plum Branch School.

Willie Lee Buffington Digital Library – Go to “Titles” and have a look at the primary source documents in the University of South Carolina South Caroliniana library's Willie Lee Buffington manuscript collection.

Maya Jones
West End Library

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