Juanita Goggins became the first black woman elected to the South Carolina legislature with her victory over a white male opponent for a seat in the South Carolina House of Representatives in 1974. A former teacher, Goggins was a staunch advocate of public school funding, reduced class sizes, and statewide expansion of kindergarten during her three terms as a representative. She also served on the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, which was established to review and monitor civil rights legislation. Upon her first election victory, Goggins told the Associated Press in a December 31, 1974, article that appeared in the Spartanburg Herald, "I am going to Columbia to be a legislator, not just a black spot in the House chambers."
Fought for Education, Health Care Funding
Goggins was the youngest of 10 children born to sharecroppers in Pendleton, South Carolina. When she was a toddler, her mother helped her memorize Bible verses and poetry to recite for family and friends at church, and she discovered that she liked being listened to and having something to say. While she was young her father died and her mother later remarried. Encouraged by her teachers and mother and stepfather, she excelled in school and graduated from South Carolina State College (now South Carolina State University) in 1957. Goggins earned a degree in home economics education and pursued a career as a public school teacher, later earning certification in elementary education, as well.
Goggins came of age at a time when public schools, colleges, and universities in South Carolina were fully segregated. During her first decade of teaching, even as the civil rights movement led to the formal abolishment of segregated schools, Goggins observed that racial disparities in South Carolina education remained institutionalized through administrative policies, funding priorities, and attitudes on the part of elected state and local officials, who were virtually all white men. By the early 1970s she had decided that it was time to try to improve things by participating in the political process.
In 1972 she became the first black woman delegate to the South Carolina State Democratic Party Convention as well as the first black female delegate from South Carolina to go to the National Democratic Convention. Two years later she was elected to the South Carolina House of Representatives to represent the Rock Hill community of York County, where she lived with her husband, dentist Horace W. Goggins, and their son, Horace Jr. She told the Associated Press that her 1974 victory was evidence that voters "were ready to accept a person who was sincere and concerned about things. Those feelings go beyond color."
During her six years (three two-year terms) as a legislator, Goggins championed efforts to improve public health and public education in South Carolina. She became a member of the Ways and Means Committee, where she was able to generate resources for all county health departments to offer testing for sickle-cell anemia, a hereditary condition that affects mainly African Americans. She also took a lead role in passing a law in 1977 that led to mandatory funding of kindergarten for all public schools in South Carolina as well as reduced class sizes in all primary grades. She was twice invited to the White House during President Jimmy Carter's administration. After Goggins's death in 2010, her only surviving sibling, sister Ilese Dixon, then age 88, described her to Seanna Adcox of the Associated Press as "just lively and smart," adding, "She thought she could fix the world."
Left Public Life and Isolated Herself
Despite her apparent popularity with her constituents and an ability to work effectively in the legislature, Goggins retired from elected office in 1980, citing unspecified health reasons that some observers later speculated were related to mental health. She founded a tutoring company called the Juanita W. Goggins School of Excellence. Within a few years she had begun to withdraw from longtime friends and family members. In the early 1990s she moved to a rented house in Columbia where she lived alone, often unseen by neighbors and rarely in contact with her relatives, as well. Following Goggins's death, according to Adcox, her ex-husband said that Goggins had virtually "divorced herself from family and friends," continuing, "I tried to communicate with her and went down to Columbia many times.... She wouldn't accept contact from anybody."
For 16 years Goggins lived in a rented home just blocks from the statehouse where she had served as a representative. Her neighbors were mostly unaware of her past role in South Carolina politics. Goggins was known as an intensely private person who occasionally took walks around the neighborhood until a mugging incident occurred in 2009, after which she rarely ventured out. Longtime neighbor Erskine Hunter told the New York Times that for quite a few years he had regularly delivered groceries to Goggins by leaving them on her front step and ringing the doorbell, as she requested. He noted that he had always trimmed the hedges and mowed the lawn for Goggins, but recalled that the only time he had ever been inside the house was to fix a water heater. The property manager for the realty company that owned Goggins's rented house had tried, in cooperation with Goggins's son, to secure help from the county's adult protective services department to allow Goggins to maintain her independence with a little outside assistance, but those efforts were rebuffed as well.
Goggins was seen for the last time around mid-February of 2010. Unbeknownst to her family or neighbors, the local utility company shut off electricity to the home on February 23 because of chronic nonpayment. This occurred during a period of unusually cold weather. Because she was habitually reclusive, neighbors did not immediately notice anything amiss when there was no activity in or around the house, particularly when most of them were themselves staying indoors, out of the cold and snow. By early March, however, her next-door neighbor contacted the landlord to say that no lights had been seen in the house for several days. The police were called, and on March 3 Goggins was found dead of hypothermia inside her home, dressed in multiple layers of clothing. Numerous uncashed retirement checks and $2,500 in cash were found, along with evidence that the still-working furnace had been turned off from inside the house. The coroner, who estimated that Goggins's death had likely occurred on or around February 20, observed to the New York Times, "This wasn't a matter of not having money," adding, "She appears to have been in the early stages of dementia and not taking care of herself."
In the aftermath of Goggins's death, nearby residents were surprised to learn that their quiet neighbor had actually been a trailblazer for African-American women in South Carolina politics. Family members, including her then 42-year-old son, acknowledged that it was difficult to understand why Goggins had withdrawn so fully from their lives. He told the Associated Press in a 2010 article that appeared on Legacy.com, "That's something I've been trying to get my head around for the last 15 years." Nevertheless, the focus at Goggins's funeral was on positive aspects of her private and public life. As the Associated Press article related, her son said, "I would like for her to be remembered as a woman who cared about her community," adding that he wanted her legacy to be inspirational "nota 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."
Born Juanita Canary Willmon on May 11, 1934, in Pendleton, SC; died on February 20(?), 2010, in Columbia, SC; daughter of Willie and Lillian Willmon (both sharecroppers); married Horace W. Goggins (a dentist), 1961 (divorced, 1982); children: Horace W. Goggins Jr. Politics: Democrat. Education: South Carolina State College, BS, home economics education, 1957; attended University of South Carolina, Winthrop University. Memberships: Rock Hill Area Sickle Cell Anemia Foundation, founder and president; South Carolina Department of Youth Services, board member.
Public school teacher, York, Chester, and Fairfield Counties, SC, 1957-74; South Carolina House of Representatives, York County, representative for District 49, 1974-79; social worker, 1980s; Juanita W. Goggins School of Excellence (a K-12 tutoring company), founder.
Alumna of the Year, South Carolina State University, 1975.
Greenville (SC) News, February 1, 2015.
Guardian (London), March 12, 2010.
New York Times, March 12, 2010.
Spartanburg (SC) Herald, December 31, 1974.
Adcox, Seanna, "Former State Lawmaker Freezes to Death in Home," Associated Press, GoUpstate.com, March 11, 2010, http://www.goupstate.com/article/20100311/ARTICLES/100319926/0/search?p=1&tc=pg (accessed May 31, 2015).
"Juanita Goggins Obituary," Associated Press, Legacy.com, 2010, http://www.legacy.com/ns/juanita-goggins-obituary/140621036 (accessed April 30, 2015).
Martin, Michel, "Remembering Civil Rights Trailblazer Juanita Goggins," Tell Me More, National Public Radio, March 15, 2010, http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=124692951 (accessed May 31, 2015).
"SC Rep. Juanita Willmon-Goggins," South Carolina African American History Calendar, http://scafricanamerican.com/honorees/view/1998/2 (accessed May 31, 2015).