During the last week of this year’s legislative session in South Carolina, eight of the state’s nine African American women serving in the House gathered to record a historic moment.
This is the first time in the state’s history that nine African American women have served simultaneously in the House of Representatives, a moment shared among a sisterhood of women who say their primary mission is to serve and create positive change.
“I think we are uniquely situated to do that,” Rep. Wendy Brawley of Hopkins said of her eight African American female colleagues. “It’s the most that has ever served In the House at one time, and I think we can be and have been a formidable force.”
They wanted to take a photo near a portrait of Mary McLeod Bethune, the famous educator and stateswoman born a daughter of former slaves in Mayesville, South Carolina as a nod to how African American women have always had a significant impact on South Carolina’s history. And they also strive to have their own impact in the legislature.
Joining Brawley are Gilda Cobb-Hunter of Orangeburg, Chandra Dillard of Greenville, Rosalyn D. Henderson-Myers of Spartanburg, Patricia Henegan of Bennettsville, Annie E. McDaniel of Winnsboro, J. Anne Parks of Greenwood, Leola Robinson Simpson of Greenville, and Krystle Simmons of Ladson. They are women who serve all parts of the state, representing almost every industry including a magazine CEO, social worker, higher education administrators, attorney, retired educator and consultant, funeral director and engineer planner.
African American women have been serving in the South Carolina House for just 44 years. Juanita C.W. Goggins of York County was elected in 1975, serving for five years. Her achievements in improving education and public health paved the way for African American women to pick up the torch and serve behind her.
“I don’t know if I digested how big this is,” Rep. Krystle Simmons said. “I just hope that little brown boys and girls, young girls, college age, I hope they look at me and say because of her, we can.”
Simmons just completed her first year in the legislature and the Ladson Democrat said she is not concerned about re-election but is instead focusing on inspiring young women and minorities to be civically engaged.
The mother of five has already left an impact on some lawmakers. When the issue of defunding Planned Parenthood came up, Simmons spoke of how she benefited from services other than abortion that the organization offers – such as parenting classes, which she attended after becoming a new mother.
After her remarks, some lawmakers approached her and expressed their support behind the scenes.
“There were so many that came up to me after that talk that said they wanted to be with me, but couldn’t,” Simmons said. “My problem is that you’re making an uneducated decision because you’re basing your decision off of hearsay.”
Simmons flipped her district, beating a Republican who has long held the seat.
One of the lawmakers made history of her own. Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter was given the honor in January of gaveling in the 123rd session of the South Carolina House as the longest serving member of the chamber. She is also the longest serving African American in the state’s history, elected in 1992 having spent years behind the scenes encouraging other women to run for office. The Orangeburg lawmaker said the House is not the same place it was when she started.
“I would like to see a return of actual debate of issues. I want to return to when we were more focused on substance than symbol,” Cobb-Hunter said. “I know that my value, my message is not for the 123 people sitting in that room.”
Recognizing the contributions of African Americans is important for the Orangeburg lawmaker who said she helped spearhead efforts to construct and dedicate the African American monument on the Statehouse grounds. That and the removal of the Confederate flag are vivid memories, both representing some progress in the state.
“Just the symbolism of that is just great,” Cobb-Hunter said of seeing an image of an empty pole laying on the Statehouse grounds in 2015. “That’s a vivid memory when we took the flag off the front lawn.”
Though some progress is evident in the position and power African Americans now hold in the Legislature, Brawley acknowledges there is still more work that needs to be done. The Hopkins lawmaker said the biggest challenge some of her colleagues face is navigating a system designed to help the people in power ignore legislation they don’t like with little accountability.
“Good ideas that can help advance the cause of South Carolina sit in a languishing committee because we are not willing to be nonpartisan enough to push good legislation,” Brawley said. “None of us are afraid to speak up and give voice to issues that will make a difference.”
And whether it was their first year or their 28th year in the Legislature, they are passionate about their service and the difference they can make.
“We have to fight. We’ve had to fight for everything we’ve got,” Brawley said. “I don’t see going to the General Assembly as lightening the load. It means the responsibility is probably going to be a little harder.”