Mother’s brother, Francis Butler Simkins, is the most important member of the Simkins branch of our family for several generations. He published eight history books, numerous scholarly articles and an abundance of miscellaneous work including book reviews and encyclopedia articles. One biographer defined FBS as “one of the most interesting intellectual forces of his generation.” As a scholar who questioned conventional thinking he “helped lay the foundations for the civil rights movement…Yet when events in the 1960s challenged the traditional in the south, Simkins discovered much he thought should be preserved… and he became a spokesman for tradition.”
Edgefield—“Fetch”, as FBS was often called, was stamped indelibly by his Edgefield environment. The town into which he was born in 1897 and which he loved all his life was a typical small southern village—no modern conveniences, great filth and mind boggling poverty were everywhere: no hospital and doctors who knew little more than giving morphine for pain (Edgefield had its share of drug addicts).the courthouse square dominated the town with its Confederate monument (and in Edgefield a statue of Strom Thurmond). When Fetch was a youngster, a “progressive” mayor removed the wooden canopies, cut down the trees and made the square into a “sunlit desert” FBS. Edgefield was a dichotomy: she produced ten governors of SC and yet was often the most violent place in the USA the spasm of violence reached its apogee in 1907 when 280 murders were reported.
The sandy or muddy roads radiating out from the central square to other communities were hazardous even after the advent of the auto. Once FBS and his mother were travelling towards home when a wheel flew off the Essex and was never found. They abandoned the car. Another time sister Raven told Fetch to hide when the car broke down going to Greenwood. Francis was completely inept with mechanical things and the women needed a man.
Segregation was complete in Edgefield with, for example, Negroes allowed on the square only on Saturday afternoons. No respectable white lady would go to town on Saturday afternoon.
The courts, politics and the churches were the center of social life while The Edgefield Advitiser brought news from the outside world. DAR,UDC, WCTU were the arbiters of social life. Their idea of patriotism was worship of Confederate ideals.
Family- Most of our written family history (by FBS, our Mother and brother Gus) is about the glories of the 19th century. The tale of the so-called heroic death of grandfather John Calhoun Simkins was romanticized and told over and over again.
Edgefield is a curious mix of up-country and low-country and this is typified in the parents of FBS.
In 1878 Sarah Raven Lewis left for good her guardian (Elias Vanderhorst) in Charleston and came to live with her Saint Mary’s schoolmate, Doushka Pickens, at Edgewood Plantation near Edgefield. Samuel McGowan Simkins was a handsome and attractive young lawyer in Edgefield. “Lady Pick” (Mother of Sally’s friend Doushka) issued the wedding invitations for the 1887 wedding of Sally and Mac.
Soon after the marriage, the couple bought a small cottage on Columbia Avenue. The cottage was four rooms with a separate kitchen out back. The porch connecting house and kitchen was open so it often froze in winter. Miss Sally nicknamed it “The Zider Zee” after a river in Holland where her forebears lived.
Childhood-Very little has been written or told about the childhood of the four Simkins children: Elliott (1890), Raven (1891), Francis (1897), Jeanie (1899). In the early 1900s four (or was it five?) orphaned cousins came to live with Mac and Sally: Nollie Lewis (son of Sally’s brother who died in a fall from Grandfather Mountain in NC ), and three (four?) Simkins cousins who were all siblings—Virginia, Eldred, Lewis and some say Robert. Miss Sally bought an octagonal room from a doctor’s house which was being torn down. It was put in the backyard for a dorm for the boys—no heat but a great relief on the crowded cottage.
Life at the cottage revolved around the hard work of making ends meet and around the parents.
Samuel McGowan Simkins had a romantic way about him and was a good and kind man with a superior knowledge of the law. He loved to talk or make speeches about his ancestors—Arthur who founded Edgefield; Eldred who was in congress; and particularly his father John Calhoun Simkins. Father John’s oil portrait in full confederate regalia hung over the mantle in the cottage and his ornamental sword was near by. However FBS later said that much of what was said about the glorious past was the “make believe life of our ancestors.” Mr. Mac inherited nothing material from his ancestors and through his own efforts was not able to recover the alleged affluence of Arthur or Eldred. Although it was never mentioned in the family, Mr. Mac was an alcoholic.
Miss Sally, because of her biting ways was called “Wasp” by some which the young Fetch translated to “War”—an apt title for the feisty, irreverent and attractive Sally.
Sarah Lewis actually believed she and her children were better than anyone in Edgefield. She told her children this over and over again—you are different and superior she would say as all admired the “Mother’s” vases two lovely porcelain French vase she inherited from her Charleston ancestors. (She also told me that I was only one eighth aristocratic!) Francis’ earliest memory is of being dressed in a kilt for a parade. He knew he would get jeers but Mother told him he was superior to any of those watching the parade and jeering.
Sally made fun of everyone and had outrageous nicknames for even the most prominent and beloved citizens:
Mr. Pomposity-an ex governor
Murdering Hog Thurmond- Strom’s dad with big jowls and he had killed a man.
Negroes—The adult attitudes towards the blacks was typical of the era and yet ambivalent. Mac and Sally believed that most “niggers” (and that is what they called that race) were very inferior. And yet both the Simkins were very kind and often went out of their way to help and support these unfortunate neighbors. For instance, Sally got her servant “Nude “ a job as a teacher. And Mac represented a black man who had killed a white man.
In spite of being so poor, Sally always had black hands to help especially when company was coming. She bossed them with a screaming voice but they all seemed to love her. Her “slave” was a tiny black man-Addison Childs. You could hear Sally all over the town: “Add Childs, if you don’t
get a bigger fire under that black pot, the ham will never get done.” “Add Childs, churn harder or the ice cream will not freeze.” Every day she spoke of Addison’ s vices: slovenly, a thief, a fool. She claimed that the eggs he brought her were from her own hen house and the vegetables from a neighbor’s garden. The whole family noted that Add Childs always failed to show up when he was most needed. Yet Add said: “Miss Sally is the most quarrelsome lady in Edgefield but she is mighty good, as good as gold.” Add was faithful to her until after her death—he kept her grave weeded until his last illness. When he would visit us in Columbia he would bring a pasteboard suitcase filled with sweet potatoes and kindlin’. The whole family went back to Edgefield for his funeral .
Negroes were part of the Episcopal congregation but had to park a long way off and receive communion last. When FBS was confirmed, a large black man knelt beside him.
Behind the scenes all sorts of behavior went on between the two races. One of our cousins was a black man who looked so much like Mac Simkins that the young boy, brother Gus, ran up embraced him and called him “Pap-pa.”
Cooks cost pennies a day and $1.00 covered a week’s wash for the large family.
Work- “We seemed poorer than anyone—our pigs were skinnier and our garden often weedy or dead from a drought.” (FBS) The front yard was a gully wash with no fence or wall separating it from the street. The cottage and the yard were like a small in town farm—family survival depended on what could be produced at home so everyone had to work hard. In fact Francis got his nickname "Fetch" by being hollered at: “Go fetch some water…” “go to the store and fetch some sugar…” “Fetch two eggs from the hen house…”
Between the garden and the farm animals (a cow, pigs and chickens) plus plenty of gifts from neighbors and the added ingenuity of “Miss Sally” the grocery was never more than $10 a month!
As far as we can discern, all the Simkins children attended Edgefield public schools. (Perhaps Francis or others also went to one of the small private schools—we can’t tell.) Both Father and Mother were well educated for the times. Mac attended Sewanee, was a serious scholar, very well versed in the law and sought after as a speaker. Sally graduated (I believe) from Saint Mary’ School for girls in Raleigh, NC, claimed Shakespeare as her favorite author and wrote for The Charleston News and Courier. Each of the young people went into higher education. Francis had shown scholarly instincts from an early age so it was no huge surprise when he went to the University of South Carolina before graduating from high school.
Fun—However life was not entirely work for the Simkins family. They participated in political and social activities in the Edgefield township.
Studying and visiting the many characters was fascinating. To mention just three of hundreds of Edgefield screwballs:
>Miss Kate who (so Sally alleged) scraped all the leftovers from the church bazaar into a croker sack held by a Negro confederate standing outside the window. And this included whole hams and even maybe a turkey!
>The uncle whose black mistress begged “Miss Sally’ to help her get rid of the man: “He just gives me all these children.”
>And we must mention “Dolly”, daughter of Sally’ friend Doushka and good friend particularly of Francis. He had been the ring bearer at her wedding when he was 5. The chamber of horrors for Edgefield children was the secluded study of Dolly’s strange husband. Fetch remembers “when Dolly and I and Bonnie Bell dashed over the countryside.”
When the bitter trial for the custody of Dolly’s nieces was progressing, Francis saw Dolly put a pearl handled pistol in her pocket to demand justice if trial went against her wishes. After her husband left Edgefield, Dolly became very wild. Slept around and rode a horse all over town even up the steps of the courthouse. Yet Dolly always lit up the whole Simkins household when she came to call.
Sally was glad to have visits from her three sisters but always wanted to know when they were leaving. The beaus of the three girls were numerous but Mother (Raven) could never figure why curtains were hung around the porch and vines hung everywhere when Jeanie’s callers came.
Ancestor worship and study along with reading occupied all ages. Family history was preserved in a few relics, in the tales of elders and in a fat scrapbook. The scrapbook was read as often as Shakespeare and the Bible.
This volume should not have been believed but Fetch never criticized it until contaminated by the skepticism at Columbia University. He thought that ancestor hunting was among the most useful of endeavors: “To those of us who are going down the scale financially and socially, it is a means of boasting our pride, giving us consolations not unlike those of religion. To those of us who are climbing up the scale socially and financially, ancestor catching gives us something money cannot buy, a rationalization of our success in the eyes of neighbors who are always family conscious.”
Several newspapers were read regularly—The Edgefield Advitiser and NY papers. The northern papers were too liberal for most Edgefield people so the chief reference is giving old copies to black friend so they could paper their walls with The Tribune or The Times. Francis has written several good articles about The Advitiser which he and sister Raven each read weekly until they died.
Another entertainment was the cases at the courthouse especially criminal cases. Miss Sally bragged that ten murders had been committed right on the courthouse square!
William Thurmond, father of Strom and next door neighbor to the Simkins cottage, ruled the district politically for many years. Thurmand had shot and killed a drunk young dandy and been completely exonerated. “Mother and I thought of him as cold-bloodied, learned on the technicalities of the law without the remotest interest in justice or in polite culture.” FBS. Others thought he was a very competent attorney. He and Mr. Mac Simkins practiced law from the same cottage near the square. Francis had a very low opinion of Strom also. The Simkins were always cordial to the next door Thurmonds although Miss Sally thought they were low class. She hated some neighbors on the other side and built a 20-foot high board fence to block them out.
Social life centered around food. As FBS used to say “Miss Sally” was a “brilliant cook.” From a three burner kerosene stove (supplemented by the black pot over an outdoor fire), she could produce a feast out of very meager ingredients. I always heard Sally kept three pots on the stove at all times: rice, hominy (which we now call grits) and a tiny old tin frypan to burn sugar for her special gravy. Sally scorned store-bought food, lukewarm dishes and, later, frozen food. FBS carried on the tradition and refused to eat food that had been frozen.
“Miss Sally” always got up early and when company was coming, preparations began at 5am In her loud voice she proclaimed the meal would be a disaster but she actually thought her food was better than most. In fact one way she classified people was by the food they served—greasy, overcooked vegetables and fried meat were very low class. I heard Sally could make something out of nothing—a bit of grease, flour and burnt sugar—wonderful gravy. Another favorite was her wafers; Madge continues making these delightful treats.
When Sally had the evening meal ready, she would call in her family and “tell all children not named Simkins to leave.”
Francis, his mother and sister Raven loved the out of doors. From earliest time with just Sally and Douschka, hiking, picnicking and fishing were part of the fun. Fetch recalls picking blackberries with the black boy Tuga.
A favorite place to hike was to Edgewood, former home of Texas beauty Lucy Holcombe and her husband Andrew Pickens and former home of Sally for many years. By the time Fetch remembers going there, the house was dilapidated and gardens overgrown. Gradually things inside and outside the house began to disappear. Clint regretted he did not take stuff especially two bronze dogs that sat on either side of the entrance.
As they sat at Edgewood after a hike, Sarah Lewis Simkins would recount tales of the times in Russia when Col. Pickens was ambassador: of the Czar calling the new baby of the ambassador and his wife “Douschka” (“little darling”) in Russian. The family adopted the name as a girl’s first name. It was almost as if Sally herself had been there. Also Sally told glorious tales of Edgewood when “Lady Pick “ was mistress of the manor—parties night and day with food and beverages flowing freely, dancing and card playing.
As an aside, one of Sarah Lewis’s most charming assets—and one which Fetch inherited-was her story telling ability. She could have a room full of people laughing until they cried as she irreverently told tales of the past. Clint Graydon could have described her as he did great lawyers: “ a glib, a vivid imagination and a total disregard of the truth.” Her stories filled Francis with the glories of the past.
The house and garden at Edgewood were eventually moved and rebuilt in Aiken. The boy Fetch was upbraided by a real estate agent for picking Camellias at Edgewood. All plants were dug up. Francis wrote a letter of protest to The News and Courier. The next hike to Edgewood Sally and son thought all was OK as a bootlegger had set up shop in one of the shrub holes!
The whole Simkins family went to the mountains of North Carolina each summer allegedly carrying along a cow for milk and butter. Her children remember Sally cooking blueberry pancakes in a big frying pan as raindrops gently sizzled in the pan.
Shorter trips were made to fish and picnic at the edge of the many creeks in the district. Francis claims when severe heat and proliferation of bugs made most of these places unpleasant, they would go stay with Addison Childs and fish in nearby Log Creek. Some of us historians doubt the veracity of this claim. But Francis has vivid descriptions of sleeping on corn shucks and other inconveniences.
Fetch’s description of the gardens of Colonel Bacon and of the Seth Butlers show his love of the flora of Piedmont SC and his disdain of “yankee” shrubbery and mowed lawns.
The Butler garden “was a picture book of the old south…perfectly adapted to the semi-tropical climate of middle South Carolina…with nothing to break the green uniformity except the quaint blossoms of the Periwinkle and the purple Wisteria and the white of the Clematis in the fall..To me the most satisfying garden of the many I have visited on three continents.” “Miss Sally” used native vine flowers and berries to decorate and even planted a few native shrubs at the cottage. No hothouse shrubs nor mowed lawns. Fetch could not remember a single lawn mower in the Edgefield of his youth!
The Center Springs Dance Pavilion, located out in the country north of Edgefield was frequented by the Simkins for picnics and dances during the summer. The marathon dances were considered to be quite shocking, but what went on at Center Springs was actually most circumspect and well chaperoned. Francis remembers sister Raven going to a ball in finery handed down from rich northerners and decorated with native berries. “She was without doubt the finest dressed person at the dance.” Miss Sally defied Edgefield convention and Baptist rules by having dances and card games at the Simkins cottage.
Churches were another center for social life. Although they had never been saved through baptism by immersion, the Simkins children were welcomed by the Baptists at the Sunbeam classes and missionary meetings. Although Mr. Mac’s family had given the land for the Baptist Church and most of his family were Baptist, Sally hated the Baptist church and disliked most “low class” Baptists. When no Episcopal minister was available, Father would go to the Baptist church and Miss Sally would tell the children “you can go if you wish but I will not go.”
When the eight Simkins children were the only pupils attending Episcopal Sunday School and Mac Simkins was the superintendent, they wondered why they couldn’t just have Sunday school at home.
The teachers were the two Seth Butler sisters, Mary and Tonsie. Being converted Episcopalians, they felt the sonorous Elizabethan language of the Book of Common Prayer was more important than the Word (Bible). According to FBS they “repeated such items of sacred lore as the Apostles Creed, the table of contents of the Prayer Book, a three hundred word history of the Hebrew children and Archbishop Usher’s chronology of the human race.” Years later when Francis was on a panel examining a PHD hopeful at LSU, one of the panelist asked the student to name the governors of Louisiana in chronological order. Francis thought the question unfair and asked the professor if he could name the genealogy of the human race. When he could not, Francis began: “Adam, Seth, Enos, Cain..” Training from the old church had saved the day for this PHD hopeful at LSU.
Sunday was a day of ritual for the whole Simkins family: Sunday School, morning prayer and a boring sermon, heavy dinner, afternoon naps and tea at the Seth Butlers in the dusk of the day. The Butlers lived in a large two story frame colonial structure. After a time of conversation in the cool dark hall and play by the children in the garden, tea was served by the lady of the house and her two daughters. They lived in a grand manner despite the fact that they had little money.
Christmas was a very special time for the Simkins household. “Father would start the day off just before dawn by shooting a pistol in the air several times in our front yard. We couldn’t shoot to celebrate the
‘Yankee’ fourth of July holiday.” Then Miss Sally and the older children would wake up the household with the tooting of toy horns and shouting “Merry Christmas.” Miss Sally and Add Childs had the ham boiling in the backyard and one or two small birds browning on the stove. She loved to tell the tale about the cat getting the bird off the table but she just wiped it of and put it back. Citrus fruits were available only at Christmas. Each child got an orange, some raisins and a small toy.
The eight children had few creature comforts and their horizons went no further than Augusta, Columbia, Charleston and Asheville. But they always had enough to eat and sufficient clothes to keep warm. None would swap northern steam for the warmth radiated by an open fire on a cold winter day. And somehow food cooked in a black pot in the back yard or corn fritters fried in an open pan on a trip to Mount Mitchell seemed to taste better than most modern foods.
About the time Francis was leaving to go to college, he had begun to make fun of “progress” in Edgefield, blaming the demise if the town on “likker drinking” and “progress.” The good roads movement was, he stated, “the third god [along with industrial and educational projects] in the Trinity of southern progress.”
Higher education—Francis Butler Simkins arrived at The University of South Carolina in 1914 at the age of 16. Tuition was free for those who could not afford it and Mac Simkins made this clear to the deans. Cousin Frank Butler allowed Francis to stay at his boarding house on Pickens Street
(located about where the walkover bridge is in 2002) and paid him $10 a week to take care of his cow. Ellen I. Butler remembers Francis taking the cow to the corner of Pickens and Gervais to graze on a lush lawn and Francis loved to talk about his “withered hands” from milking. Fetch did not indulge in any of the social activities at USC but was a serious student. Only club he joined was a literary society.
Even with some poorly educated and some boring professors, new intellectual worlds were opened to FBS: economics, astronomy, modern writers, mathematics, sociology. Particularly under Yates Snowden, history and facts and figures about South Carolina began to pave the way for Fetch’s life’s work. For example, the history class visited both Allen University and Benedict College (local black institutions) and Francis was astounded to see well dressed, highly intelligent and very articulate Negro students.
Francis was greatly impressed with New York City when he went there to go to Columbia University (about1918). He and a friend from Edgefield emerged from Penn station “cheap straw hats on our heads and dollar suitcases in our hands.” The subway riders were buried in dreadfully poor newspapers instead of seeing the sights and sounds of the city; huge draft horses and luxurious fur coats also caught his attention. He was amazed at the beauties of a kitchen in New Jersey when he visited a friend. And the serious and numerous readers in the New York Public astounded him.
Francis had many unusual friends at Columbia U.—a socialist from south Georgia, a NY Jew with flowing locks and several foreign friends. Rudiger Bilden (a German with a beautiful blonde wife from Mississippi) and Gilberto Freyre (a handsome and brilliant Brazilian) became lifelong friends. They argued far into many nights: about history (comparing Brazil and the old American south), about values with old ideas being replaced by new, about the “new south” and the virtues of Henry Grady and the like. Gilberto, Francis said, was ‘Intellectually the strongest individual I have know intimately with more knowledge than me on all subjects except US history.”
Getting an MA (1920) was alarmingly easy for FBS but not the PHD. At first his thesis (The Tillman Movement in South Carolina) was rejected but (with encouragement from Rudiger Bilden), Francis revised it and it was actually good enough to be published. The two and one half hour orals were devastating. He came through in all areas but European history. With more work, he made up for this interview and got his PHD in 1926.
While still a student, FBS traveled abroad. Some say he went on a motorcycle tour of Europe with his co-author James Patton and there were family tales of the bearded and liberal young scholar going recklessly over the continent on a motorcycle. Fetch himself tells of visiting Freyre in Brazil and the great influence this had on him. He compared Brazil and the south he knew on race relations and other ways. Also Francis studied Portuguese and spent some time on the Iberian Peninsula.
Adult Life—Four areas dominated Francis Simkins’ life after leaving Columbia University: scholarship, teaching, eccentricities and other personal traits.
Scholarship-Francis Simkins was an assiduous researcher. Although he was flamboyant and usually exaggerated in his conversation and speeches, he never strayed far from the facts in his published works. He was an intellectual gadfly who liked to provoke. FBS enjoyed contradicting the prevailing historical views and took great delight in going against the intellectual establishment.
The contributions of Francis Butler Simkins in the field of southern history were enormous:
1926-The Tillman Movement-thesis published by Duke University
1927-He debunked the Ku Klux Klan in an article in The Journal of Negro History
1932-South Carolina During Reconstruction (with Robert Woody) won the Dunning Prize—the first revisionist work on Reconstruction
1936-the Women of the Confederacy (with James Patton)—one of the first serious scholarly studies of women in southern history.
1944-Pitchfork Ben Tillman which I believe is his best book.
1947-The South Old and New- later (1957) revised: A History of the South,
1957-Virginia, History Government Geography- a textbook which FBS said bureaucrats made him remove some of the more damning features like the filth of the towns.
1963-The Everlasting South-a group of essays upholding his thesis that the South is a unique region.
Many of Simkins’ ideas and interpretations are still fresh today. He is one of the most important interpreters of the American South, presenting southern history as a significant part of American history.
In addition to the Dunning Prize, Simkins held research fellowships at the Social Science Research Council and the John Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, delivered the Fleming Lectures at LSU and the Centennial Lectures at U.of Mississippi. He was president of the Southern Historical Association in 1953-54. Recently “The Francis Butler Simkins Award’ was started and gives an award every third year for best and first (for that author) book about the south.
Although very daring in his personal talks, he did not change facts in his written histories. He refused to buckle into historical fads and despised historians who tried to popularize their works.
Teacher- FBS accepted temporary appointments at: UNC at Chapel Hill, Emory in Atlanta and, in 1928, Longwood College in Farmville where he remained until he retired in 1966. He also was visiting professor at LSU(1948-1951), Princeton (1953-4), Memphis 1954), U. of Texas(1957), U. of Massachusetts(1965) and may have taught at The Citadel one year.
Simkins built a reputation as an excellent teacher—at ease, unaffected, and devoted to his students, challenging them to think for themselves. He thoroughly enjoyed teaching, made friends with his students and treated them as a patient father would his children. FBS knew his material and possessed a colloquial and witty style. Students were certain from his style that what he was saying was important. He often caught his students’ attention by pointing out the humor in a person or event. His penchant for the occasional extravagant statement endeared him to students and faculty as when he remarked that Thomas Jefferson “was not too simple to live in a roman mansion instead of a log cabin and to drink Madeira instead of cider.” He loved to make such outrageous statements and then say in his stacatto voice: “Now what do you think of that!” Fond of inviting students to lunch for discussion, he neither dominated the conversation nor tempted to influence their thinking unduly. Although he never tried to proselyte his students, basic to all his teachings were his faith in farmers and agrarian movements and Christianity as he had learned it in old Edgefield. He loved to proclaim to students and friends that he never read anything but “old newspapers” and yet he knew Drieser’s American Tragedy and Faulkner’s Absalom Absalom plus the anthropology of the Negro race.
Once I visited his classroom, leaving with several impressions: “ Here is a great mind, a witty and entertaining lecturer, an humble person and the typical ‘absent-minded professor’—completely indifferent to conventions and to creature comforts.” He had rubbed against the blackboard and was covered with chalk, got his foot caught in the trash can and did not notice it at first.
It would be difficult to say which Francis liked better: writing or teaching. In any event the two channels gave him the opportunity to communicate the ideas which circulated rapidly in his mind. One great disappointment was that he did not write a biography of Jefferson Davis. He claimed he had written part out by hand but no one has found this yet.
Eccentricities- The personal peculiarities of Francis Butler Simkins are legend among his students, colleagues and family. “Doc’s” dress as well as his undress attracted attention. He dressed in a careless and somewhat quaint fashion wearing, for example, an old homburg hat on trips that made him look scruffy. Some unverified tales say he had appeared in complete undress to some students or peers.
Every day he had trouble keeping his shirttail in. When his wife told him to tuck it into his shorts the problem was compounded: now his shorts showed when his pants fell down.
Francis’ feet gave him lots of trouble; he never cut his toenails; often removed his shoes and sometimes cut holes in his shoes. When he propped his feet up for comfort, the holes in his socks made by the toenails were prominent. His wife, Margaret, said he was the only person she knew who could wreck a house with one orange and The New York Times. He peeled and discarded pieces of both as he walked through the house. Also he had a crazy habit of tearing off pieces of newspaper, rolling them up, sticking them in his ear and then tossing them aside.
He rejected the germ theory of disease and once served homemade ice-cream mixed with hair from friendly dogs. At cocktail parties he would eat anything with his hands whether finger food or not. FBS did, however, appreciate good food and drink. He buried his liquor in the yard at Farmville allegedly to keep his alcoholic friends from finding it.
Francis was very tight with money. Family always said he could out fumble everyone when the check came. Margaret never gave him more than a few dollars because he habitually lost money. Also he frequently lost notes and records. All his colleagues joked about his carelessness and forgetfulness. Once in paying for a soda for a distinguished historian, he reached into the depths of his pants pocket and pulled out “the most crumpled dollar bill I have ever seen.” Family legend says that the “FB” stood for “free board” as Fetch could always find places to stay free with friends and colleagues.
Although Francis was married and divorced and then remarried to the wonderful Margaret, he was too innocent to be a ladies man. One afternoon Margaret informed Francis she had been to visit the doctor. Preoccupied with something else, Doc asked vaguely about Dr. Smith’s health. Margaret informed him she had not been to see Doctor Smith about his health but her own. Sitting Francis down, she told him she had some important news—she was pregnant. This shocked him so much that Doc stammered a bit before apologetically admitting: “My God, Margaret, I feel partially responsible!”
When Margaret was pregnant and could not clean out the tub, FBS configured a hose hanging from a tree in the backyard and took his showers there.
Ordinarily Doc wrote at odd hours on an antique typewriter. An early rise, he liked to set up under a shady tree at first light, but when his noisy typing outside annoyed his neighbors, he removed to the local graveyard, where apparently his hunt and peck typing disturbed not a soul.
Doc enjoyed interesting people but if the conversation lagged, he would doze..once at the banquet on stage at the Southern Historical Association and also at a violin solo by his department chairman at LSU.
Many believe that these eccentricities plus his bold style of proclaiming the Truth as he saw it kept FBS from receiving either the academic position or the professional recognition that his ability merited.
Philosophy –FBS’ philosophy of history and particularly his views on race and the south were complicated and contradictory.
His 1932 book Reconstruction in South Carolina accepted the Negro as part of reconstruction and not necessarily the evil part. FBS and his co-author Woody were roundly criticized by other southern historians but praised by black and northern writers. It is still considered a classic although 70 years later it may seem old fashioned to some. Williamson, author of 1965 book on the Negro in SC 1861-1877: “I am profoundly impressed with their scholarly craftsmanship and human perception.”
Simkins’ principle concern was to “convey the realities I have seen and heard in the many years I have lived in the region below the Potomac….I have heard tales and seen deeds the formal historian fails to record. I have felt the Southern past in both its exalting and depressing moods. I know the glories of the Southern legend, and through contact with the outside world I have pierced this legend. Ancestor worship gives me opportunity both to cheer and jeer. I have traveled through the South, through its mountains and its forests, through its brier patches and its swamps. I have emerged with the realization that there are other things as important as the colonel and his Lady. I have traveled through the rest of the United States, through its centers of learning and wealth, through its slums and its factories. I have emerged with the realization that there is much about the southern way of life worthy of imitation.”
More and more he came to stress the distinctive character of “The Everlasting South” and to question the validity of such that passed for progress in the modern South.
FBS claims his views of the Negro were (at least in the early 60s when his last works were published) what most white southerners believed: segregation as a way of life should be preserved. Francis and his wife Margaret were leaders in the Prince Edward County attempt to circumvent integration by abandoning the public schools and setting up private schools. Margaret taught in one of the new schools.
However, in true old south style, FBS treated all black people with kindness and dignity, even loving deeply certain black people in his life—Will who brought him food when they both lived in Charleston and Add Childs at whose funeral he spoke .
Fetch was not ashamed of being a southerner and was proud of his origins and ancestry. He concentrated on understanding and justifying historically the plain white people of the south especially their heroes like BR Tillman.
“I propose to stress those political and social traits that make the region between the Potomac and the Rio Grande a cultural province conscience of its identity, retaining country habits such as an interest in rifles, dogs and wildlife. When at LSU Margaret and Francis “lived in the shadow of the football stadium.” Francis philosophized: “Indeed, pride in the strength of sectional football teams took its place along with pride in the valor of the Confederate army as a major source of Southern chauvinism.” Doc was no longer the country bumpkin when he spoke and wrote in opposition to the nationalizing of southern history. “The most elementary concept of sound historiography—the ability to appraise the past by standards other than those of the present.” Having grown up with Jim Crow laws, FBS wanted to be both on the side of justice and of the South as he understood it.
Our final look at Francis Butler Simkins is a bit about his personal life. He was first married to a beautiful and voluptuous blonde student, Edna Chandler, a rural Virginian. Fetch’s biographer believes Francis thought Edna was similar to the glamorous Jane, wife of Rudiger Bilden. The resemblance was only skin deep: Edna was no intellectual like the Mississippi girl, Jane.
After a divorce, FBS married an English professor and widow, Margaret Lawrence. She was tiny and had reddish curly hair, somewhat reminiscent of “Miss Sally” in looks but Margaret was very sweet tempered. Margaret helped Fetch organize his research and writings and, to some extent, his whole life. Their one child, Francis Butler junior was born in 1943. Fetch always enjoyed going back to Edgefield. In 1944 “Chip” (as FBS Junior was always called) and Elliott G. Simkins (brother Elliott’s grandson) were christened in the family christening gowns and at tiny Trinity church where all the Mac and Sally children had been christened. After the death of FBS and at a beautiful memorial service, a plaque was placed inside the small church and dedicated to this interesting and provocative historian.
Beneath the sometimes bombastic gadfly and iconoclastic exterior was a very kind and truly humble gentleman, Francis Butler Simkins . He was able to stay friendly with most of the people who disagreed with him. Doc’s students, family friends and those colleagues who knew him best forgave Simkins’ many faults and truly loved this eccentric and brilliant southern historian
Copyright (c) By Sarah Graydon McCrory, 2002
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