Feature

Juanita Goggins

The civil-rights pioneer who died alone

Juanita Goggins1934–2010

The people who lived near Juanita Goggins in Columbia, S.C., knew her only as a recluse who rebuffed their efforts to engage with her. But in recent days they learned that their neighbor was a civil-rights pioneer—the first black woman elected to the South Carolina legislature, serving three terms starting in 1974.

Before leaving public life in 1980 to deal with a mental illness “whose details she would not reveal,” Goggins “broke down many barriers,” said the Charleston, S.C., State. The daughter of sharecroppers and the youngest of 10 children, she taught home economics in the state’s segregated school system before entering politics. In 1972, she became the first black woman to represent her state at the Democratic National Convention, and was appointed to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission in 1974. That same year, Goggins ran for office for the first time, defeating the white Republican incumbent to represent a district just south of Charlotte.

When Goggins took office, she declared she intended to be “a legislator, not just a black spot in the House chambers.” She sponsored landmark legislation that changed the way schools were funded, expanded preschool education, and reduced class size. After she left office, she divorced her husband and moved into a modest house in Columbia. A neighbor would leave groceries on the front step, which Goggins would retrieve once the neighbor had left. She died there from hypothermia during a cold snap that froze South Carolina in mid-February. Her body went undiscovered for more than a week.

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