According to legend, on January 9, 1861, a cadet from the South Carolina Military Academy fired the first shot of the Civil War, preventing the SS Star of the West from supplying Union troops at Fort Sumter. The one who pulled the lanyard on the cannon to fire this historic shot was, most likely, George Edward “Tuck” Haynsworth.
Accompanying Haynsworth near the cannon was a soon-to-be graduate of what is known today as The Citadel, William Stewart Simkins.
Years later, Simkins moved to Texas and was named as a professor of law at the University of Texas in Austin. And in the 1950s, a new men’s dormitory was opened on the Austin campus, called Simkins Hall, named to honor The Citadel graduate.
I lived in Simkins Hall while an undergraduate at the University of Texas in the 1964-65 school year. But none of us living there had any idea — or cared — that our dorm was named after this respected South Carolinian.
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Several years ago, I visited my old dorm, but it wasn’t “Simkins Hall” anymore. The Board of Regents renamed it Creekside Residence Hall in 2010 after it became known that Citadel graduate Simkins and his brother had organized the Ku Klux Klan in Florida.
I contacted the then-regent who had proposed dropping the tainted Simkins name and told him that there was another South Carolinian with that same last name who remained well-respected throughout her life, civil rights leader Modjeska Monteith Simkins. Why not return to the old name, but in honor of her, I asked? He suggested that I send my idea to the current Board of Regents. I did, and I got a positive response. As of today, I have not had further word or seen news reports about the status of my proposal.
But I do see news reports that Gov. Nikki Haley, who received positive national and international recognition for her and South Carolina when she was instrumental in removing a Confederate flag from the State House grounds, is now supporting the removal of a Confederate flag from the chapel at The Citadel.
The Citadel ring has a pile of cannon balls below a depiction of the U.S colors and the S.C. colors “depicting the unity of the state and federal government.” The school’s description of the ring says, “When the Citadel moved to its present location, the Civil War cannon balls piled before the Old Citadel were left behind.”
The Citadel and the ring purchased by the student remember the historic actions of Haynsworth and Simkins in challenging the U.S. government in 1861. But the ring also makes a statement that today we have an inseparable union of the United States and South Carolina.
Divisive remnants of the past — including cannon balls, a Confederate flag and other symbols of the death and damage in our nation that followed that cannonball shot over the bow of the Union ship in Charleston waters — should be remembered but appropriately left behind in a museum.
Haynsworth is remembered with respect as a Citadel graduate. But Simkins is remembered for his unfortunate youthful exuberance in continuing to call for hate and racial discrimination after he and others in the Confederate army surrendered to Union forces, removed their uniforms and began wearing civilian clothes.
Modjeska Simkins, a Columbia native born the same year William Stewart Simkins began teaching law in Texas, is an excellent standard bearer who unites South Carolina, Texas and the rest of the country to work to resolve continuing divisions among whites, blacks, Hispanics, Muslims and others who bring positive contributions and strength to our nation. She worked — and others continue her work — to bring equal rights to all, regardless of religion, national origin, race, color or sex.
I may not succeed in getting the name Simkins Hall back onto my old dorm. But I intend to continue to tell the Texas Board of Regents that South Carolina does have a worthy alternative in Modjeska Simkins and that we are willing to leave William Stewart Simkins and the cannon balls behind.
Dr. Smith is president of Metromark Research; contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.