Marion Birnie Wilkinson

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Date: 1996
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Biography
Length: 1,618 words
Content Level: (Level 4)
Lexile Measure: 1270L

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About this Person
Born: 1870
Died: 1956
Nationality: American
Updated:Nov. 13, 1996
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A skillful leader and producer of numerous statewide clubs and projects, Marion Birnie Wilkinson improved the quality of life for many, uplifted her race, and served humankind. The seeds she planted throughout the state of South Carolina, and the nation, continue to flourish and grow today.

Marion Raven Birnie Wilkinson was born June 23, 1870, to Richard and Anna Frost Birnie in Charleston, South Carolina. Her five sisters and brothers were Charles Wainwright, Lawrence, Richard, Hilda, and Florian. Later, Richard Birnie married Grace Hope and another child, James Hope Birnie was born from this marriage. The Birnies were well-to-do blacks, having received their status from earlier family members characterized as free blacks in Charleston. The father, Richard, was a cotton classer, who traveled in the South and Southwest following the cotton markets during that season.

The Birnie children began their education at Avery Institute in Charleston. While there, Wilkinson became interested in the advancement of her people. When she returned to the historic institution as a teacher, much of her money from her salary was channeled to worthy causes.

Education and service came naturally to Wilkinson, for her forefathers had also followed this path. Her maternal great-grandmother, who is known simply as Mrs. Stromer, founded a school in Charleston for blacks in 1820 and taught in schools established for freed blacks after the Civil War. Henry Frost, her maternal grandfather, operated a school on Magazine Street.

Wilkinson married Robert Shaw Wilkinson, also from Charleston, on June 29, 1897. Robert Shaw Wilkinson was the son of Charles Henry and Lavinia Robinson Wilkinson. He was educated at the Robert Shaw Memorial School, Avery Institute, and West Point, and received his B.A. from Oberlin College. His career as an educator began at Kentucky State University, and he later moved to South Carolina State University as professor of physics and chemistry on its first faculty in 1896. After Thomas E. Miller, a former African American congressman, resigned his presidency of the university in 1911, Wilkinson became president. As his wife, Marion Birnie Wilkinson became "first lady" and leader of students, faculty, and community. The Wilkinsons had four children: Helen Raven, Robert Shaw, Frost Birnie, and Lula Love.

On the campus of South Carolina State, Marion Birnie Wilkinson, affectionately known as "Mother Wilkinson," guided the work of the YWCA for many years. Through this organization, young women developed many characteristics that would serve them well in the workplace and in the community, such as leadership, character, and service. In 1928, Marion Birnie Wilkinson's leadership led to the construction of the only YWCA building on a college campus during that era. Funds were raised by the students for the construction of that building, later named the Marion B. Wilkinson Y-Hut. It served the Y organizations for years and is still being used on the college campus.

Wilkinson headed the College Boarding Department for many years. Auxiliary services like this department were not provided by the state of South Carolina; therefore, faculty and staff led the way for the students to have full college-wide services similar to those in other institutions.

The Wilkinsons began an Episcopal church in their home in 1912, both having practiced that faith in Charleston. St. Paul's Episcopal Church, located next to the college, had its early beginning in the president's residence, moved later to the Y-Hut, and in 1950 moved to its permanent home next to the college campus. Marion Wilkinson's brother, Charles W. Birnie, while practicing medicine as the first African American doctor in Sumter, South Carolina, founded Good Shepherd Episcopal Church for blacks in Sumter. Religion played an important role in Marion Wilkinson's family, and evidence shows family activity in the Episcopal church through several generations.

Women's Clubs Founded

Community and social uplift were Marion Wilkinson's primary concern. She became widely known for her work in these areas in Orangeburg, South Carolina, and nationwide. Cited as a "gift of womanhood in Ebony," by historian Asa Gordon, she was in the initial group of women at Sidney Park Colored Methodist Episcopal Church (now Christian Methodist Episcopal Church), who in 1909 founded the South Carolina Federation of Negro Women. Others in the group were Sara B. Henderson, Celia D. Saxon, and Lizella A. Jenkins Moorer. These women spearheaded the growth of the federated clubs in the state such as the Uplift Club (Camden), Louise F. Holmes Literary and Art Club (Charleston), Sunlight Club (Orangeburg), and One More Effort (Sumter). During Wilkinson's leadership as president of the state organization, she received support from all the South Carolina federated clubs for the organization's projects. She gained further support for the projects of the South Carolina Federation of Colored Women from students, faculty and staff at the college.

During its infancy, a primary purpose of the South Carolina Federation of Colored Women was to found and support a reformatory school for delinquents. Later, the school was used for girls who lacked proper family protection. Known initially as Fairwold, the school later became the Marion Birnie Wilkinson Home for girls. Wilkinson, along with other citizens, headed committees to appear before the state legislature to gain annual financial support for the Fairwold School, having taken its name from the Fairwold, South Carolina, train station stop. The state withdrew financial support in 1929, placing the burden of all of the fund-raising for the home on the local clubs. Fire destroyed the home, but under the leadership of Wilkinson the home was rebuilt in Cayce, South Carolina, on land donated by the Upper Diocese of the Episcopal Church of South Carolina. The Duke Foundation, which would not support the home when it served delinquents, funded the home after it was made an orphanage. The Marion B. Wilkinson Home for Girls was a model for a similar establishment in Virginia.

Etta B. Rowe, in a statement about the history and success of the South Carolina Federated Women's Club published in Our Book of Gold, declared:

Why this interest, Why this success: Why this movement to the heroic effort of our women? To this question we exclaim in one, united voice--the great inspiring leadership of the sainted Marion Birnie Wilkinson. Real leadership does not mean standing at the head of an organization--real leadership is that technique so lofty, so skillful, that it induces others to work and perform in like manner.

Rowe also described Marion B. Wilkinson's personality. She describes the clubwoman's popularity on the national level: "So peculiarly sweet and delicate was her ambition that at a National Association meeting in Washington, when the crowd was yelling, `Make Marian Wilkinson President,' she declined with modesty in favor of Mary McLeod Bethune, giving as her reason that Mrs. Bethune had far more struggles than she, let's honor her."

Wilkinson was instrumental in the founding of the Sunlight Club, an affiliate of the South Carolina Federation of Negro Women in Orangeburg, South Carolina. In 1909, at the founding of the organization, the Sunlight Club promoted cultural enhancement, education, good character, and better human relations. Charter and early members came from faculty wives, staff of South Carolina State, Claflin College, and the Orangeburg community. The club continues to function, serving various aspects of the community. One of its main fund-raisers is the annual Wilkinson Tea held in February.

Wilkinson made many notable contributions at the state level. She organized recreation centers at Camp Jackson for African American soldiers during World War I. She was responsible for the Better Homes Project, a statewide project to improve homes of the less fortunate, and for the establishment of the Rosenwald Schools in South Carolina, part of a multistate effort in the South funded by the Julius Rosenwald Fund to build schools in rural communities. She worked with the Red Cross. She also set up a WPA training school and day nursery during the late 1930s. President Hoover sought her advice on the child welfare program.

Asa Gordon described the accomplishments of this formidable woman:

The finest contribution Mrs. Wilkinson has made to the state is that of her life as a model mother for her family of four children. Mrs. Wilkinson has demonstrated in her life the possibility of a woman taking an active part in the work of the world and yet being true to her family obligations and bringing up a family in the way that it should go. She has been of inestimable aid to her husband as executive of the college at the same time that she trained her sons and daughters.... The career of Mrs. Wilkinson and others like her in this state proves that the progressive colored woman has shown herself capable of using the new freedom in such a way as to preserve the old family life and at the same time give the woman a chance to function as a productive member of the social order.

The Wilkinson children were well-educated and made important contributions to society. Helen Raven was professor of chemistry at the college and a follower in her mother's footsteps, serving the community of Orangeburg, the Sunlight Club, other civic organizations, and St. Paul's Episcopal Church. Robert Shaw Wilkinson, Jr., and Frost Birnie became outstanding physicians, and Lula Love, a social worker, was active in civic and welfare organizations.

Serving as the wife of the second president of South Carolina State, known then as State Agricultural and Mechanical College, Wilkinson was a gracious, knowledgeable, and intelligent woman. She and her husband were friends of many well-known persons, including Mary McLeod Bethune, Charlotte Hawkins Brown, and Benjamin E. Mays. They were influential on campus, in the city, state, and nationwide. Marian Birnie Wilkinson died on September 19, 1956. She is remembered for her tireless efforts to uplift the black community, particularly in South Carolina.


Birnie, C. W. "Education of the Negro in Charleston, South Carolina, Prior to the Civil War." Journal of Negro History 12 (January 1927): 13-21.

Caldwell, A. B. History of the Negro. South Carolina Edition. Atlanta: A. B. Caldwell Publishing Co., 1919.

Drago, Edmund L. Initiative, Paternalism, and Race Relations--Charleston's Avery Normal Institute. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1990.

Fitchett, E. Horace. "The Origin and Growth of the Free Negro Population of Charleston, South Carolina." Journal of Negro History 26 (October 1941): 421-37.

Gordon, Asa H. Sketches of Negro Life and History in South Carolina. Columbia: University of South Carolina, 1929.

McDonald, Anna Birnie. Interview with Barbara Williams Jenkins, Sumter, South Carolina, January 1994.

National Negro Digest 4, Special Issue (1940): 28-29.

Nix, Nelson C. A Tentative History of State A & M College. Unpublished. Orangeburg, S.C.: 1940.

South Carolina Federation of Colored Women's Clubs, 1909-1959. Fiftieth Anniversary, "Our Book of Gold." Souvenir Journal, 1959.

Who's Who in Colored America, 1930-1932. Edited by Thomas Yenser. Brooklyn: Who's Who in Colored America, 1933.

Wilkinson, Lula Love. Interview with Barbara Williams Jenkins, Orangeburg, S.C., January 1994.

Zimmerman, Geraldyne Pierce. Interview with Barbara Williams Jenkins, Orangeburg, S.C., January 1994.


Articles, photographs, and memorabilia are available in the Miller F. Whittaker Library, South Carolina State University Historical Collection, Orangeburg, South Carolina.

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Gale Document Number: GALE|K1623000790