RIP Juanita W. Goggins

Juanita W. Goggins, an African-American woman, sits in a wicker chair that is seemingly positioned on a porch. The photo is in black and white. Goggins wears a dark jacket with a tie around the waist, two sets of white buttons down the front, and large white lapels. Her hands are folded neatly in her lap. She looks directly at the camera and smiles.Last month, civil rights trailblazer Juanita W. Goggins passed away in her home (h/t).

Goggins was the first African-American woman to be elected to the South Carolina state legislature, in 1974. She served three terms before retiring. Among her many other accomplishments, she was also the first black woman from South Carolina to be represented at the Democratic National Convention two years before her election, in 1972, and the first black woman appointed to the United States Civil Rights Commission.

Many of Goggins’ obituaries are focusing on the sad story of her death. While those circumstances are worth discussing for several reasons (and you can follow the links to read about them), here I would like to center and celebrate the many important achievements she had throughout her life (all emphasis mine):

Several neighbors in her elderly, mostly black community in downtown Columbia said they had learned the full scope of Ms. Goggins’s accomplishments only from her obituaries. At the peak of her political career, in the 1970s, she twice visited President Jimmy Carter at the White House and was the first black woman appointed to the United States Civil Rights Commission.

In the legislature, where she represented Rock Hill, on the northern border of the state, for three terms in the 1970s, Ms. Goggins, a Democrat, helped pass key legislation for improving elementary school education and public health. Last year, a stretch of Highway 5 was renamed in her honor.

“She was truly a mover and a shaker, so well-liked and so well-loved by so many,” said Representative John King, 33, who holds her former seat in the General Assembly.

Those achievements include teaching public school, founding a tutoring company and in 1972 becoming the first black woman from South Carolina to be a delegate to the Democratic National Convention. Ms. Goggins was elected to the State House in 1974, defeating a white male incumbent.

“I am going to Columbia to be a legislator, not just a black spot in the House chambers,” she told The Associated Press at the time. Voters, she said, “were ready to accept a person who was sincere and concerned about things. Those feelings go beyond color.”

In the legislature, Ms. Goggins helped expand kindergarten classes, reduced student-teacher ratios and approved sickle-cell anemia testing in county health departments.

The AP adds:

Goggins, the youngest of 10 children, grew up the daughter of a sharecropper in rural Anderson County, about 130 miles northwest of the capital. She was the only sibling to earn a four-year college degree. Her bachelor’s in home economics from then-all-black South Carolina State College was followed by a master’s degree.

She taught in the state’s segregated schools, married a dentist and got into politics. In 1972, she became the first black woman to represent South Carolina as a delegate to the Democratic National Convention. Two years later, she became the first black woman appointed to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission.

She sat on the powerful House budget-writing committee and was responsible for funding sickle-cell anemia testing in county health departments.

The former teacher also helped pass the 1977 law that is still the basis for education funding in the state. Her proposals to expand kindergarten and to reduce student-teacher ratios in the primary grades were adopted after she left politics in 1980, citing health issues.

Her son said she worked several years as a case manager for the state Department of Health and Environmental Control, although a spokesman said the agency had no records of her employment. At one point, she also started a nonprofit tutoring service called the Juanita W. Goggins School of Excellence.

That is a hugely impressive list of achievements, and Ms. Goggins sounds like an immensely impressive woman. I’m very sad and regretful to say that I had never heard of her and her work until after her death, but I am grateful and honored to have the chance to learn and write about her now. She fought for those who needed her to fight, broke down barriers, worked towards social justice, and was one of many heroes who helped to get us to where we are today.

Her son Horace Goggins says:

“I would like for her to be remembered as a woman who cared about her community,” he said. “I want her to be remembered as a positive role model, not only for African-American girls, but also any young girl who has a want and a desire to make a change and do something positive.”

Thank you, Juanita W. Goggins, for your work and public service. Rest in peace.

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11 comments for “RIP Juanita W. Goggins

  1. becky
    March 15, 2010 at 5:46 pm

    this is incredibly sad. and the reports of the cause of her death leaves me completely baffled – why, though?! – and angry…
    may she rest in peace, and i thank her for her incredible effort and accomplishments.

  2. March 15, 2010 at 5:54 pm

    She was an incredible woman. The world is a sorrier place without her.

  3. preying mantis
    March 15, 2010 at 8:35 pm

    “this is incredibly sad. and the reports of the cause of her death leaves me completely baffled – why, though?! – and angry…”

    It’s kind of a given that it’s sad and infuriating and tragic whenever someone’s mental illness or special needs result in them cut off from a support network and grievously harmed or killed in a way that would have been easily prevented by having that network.

    Unfortunately, there’s a fine line to be walked between empowering social services to help individuals over their objections without them posing a clear-cut danger to themselves and giving social services/the government too much power over an already-marginalized and -infantilized group.

  4. March 15, 2010 at 8:55 pm

    She was such a badass. Truly.

  5. Sarah
    March 15, 2010 at 9:17 pm

    @preying mantis:
    The way I see it is, let’s skip the “fine line” crap and not empower anybody to “help” anybody over their objections.

    Because otherwise you’ll have the system we have now–one where a psychiatrist talks to you for two minutes, pronounces you dangerous to cover his/her ass liability-wise, and condemns you to be locked up and treated like a subhuman until you can suck up to your captors enough to convince them you’re “sane”.

    At least, that’s been my experience–can’t speak for the disabled or old people, but I’ve spoken to some who’d been institutionalized by force and were severely pissed off about it.

    People always say that the death of somebody without a support system is a “tragedy” and move to implement coercive measures, when what they should have done in the first place was to be a fucking support system, so that said person could live and be happy instead of merely surviving miserably because the impersonal hand of government stepped in and locked him/her up.

  6. preying mantis
    March 15, 2010 at 9:45 pm

    “when what they should have done in the first place was to be a fucking support system,”

    You’re arguing for two contradictory things in this sort of case, though. The support system was rejected, due in large part, it seems, to the mental illness that also led to the failure to pay utilities or call social services when the house became intolerably cold.

    The social support system was rejected, and then the government support system was rejected. In both cases, the neighbors and social services recognized and respected her right to say “I don’t want your help.” And, without help, she died. And it’s a tragedy. And it’s not one we can really prevent without endangering the rights of a lot of people who then run a significantly greater risk of winding up in situations like you described.

  7. Sarah
    March 15, 2010 at 10:08 pm

    Well, this may seem cold to you, but you “preserve life” people never gave a fuck about the way I felt, so I’ll say it: I’ll take the earlier-than-it-could-have-been death of an amazing kick-ass civil rights pioneer ANY DAY over my right to live in my own house and not have drugs forced into my body being trampled on.

  8. March 16, 2010 at 12:24 am

    Thank you for sharing this story.

  9. j-bird
    March 16, 2010 at 1:29 am

    What an amazing set of accomplishments! I’d never heard of her before now, but I admire her already. Thanks for highlighting her story.

  10. becky
    March 16, 2010 at 7:19 am

    @preyingmantis: there’s no need to explain to me why the way i feel/react is “a given”. come on…

  11. Kristen
    March 19, 2010 at 12:38 am

    Ms. Goggins, thank you for helping to change America when she needed it the most. Your sacrifice has made this a much better place. Let’s hope you can inspire us to make America even better and inspire us to empower women around the world to make the changes that are needed in their communities so that they can live in a better place and empower others as you have done.

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