In 1951, George Simkins, Jr., of Greensboro, and Anna Oleona Atkins of Winston-Salem were married. Their elegant wedding not only brought together the black elite of North Carolina's Piedmont Triad, but more significantly, it merged two families who, arguably, did more to advance civil rights in the Carolinas than any other.
George C. Simkins, Jr. hailed from an old line of South Carolina high achievers—the descendant of men who founded and settled communities, served as governors and members of Congress, fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War, and built elegant plantations along meandering rivers. Those were his white ancestors. The patriarch of the Black Simkinses, George's direct lineage, outlived slavery and became businessmen, lawyers, educators and lawyers and distinguished themselves in ways his white slave-holding father and enslaved mother could never have dreamed.
And from that tree came George, who lived a relatively privileged life of ease until he decided one day to take a stand and play golf on the city's whites-only golf course. That move landed him in jail, and firmly in the throes of the civil rights movement. For the next 50 years, he would challenge every segregationist institution and convention he encountered. He rattled the white establishment, sued it, harassed it, exposed it and won.
Segregated health care in the United States came tumbling down because of George Simkins' dogged litigation. Greensboro Schools were forced to end their pretense of compliance with the Brown decision and actually implement full desegregation because of Simkins' challenges. The lunch counters, retail stores, city employment rolls, libraries, sports facilities, bank staffs in Greensboro all bowed to Simkins' unrelenting pressure to install racial justice. He was, as one noted civil rights advocate noted, "Greensboro's preeminent civil rights activist of the 20th Century."
Anna was cut from a different cloth. A statuesque beauty, her transparent refinement and poise might have easily led people to believe that she might be too demur for the movement. But her ancestry suggested otherwise.
Anna's grandfather was Simon Greene Atkins, the son of former slaves and farmers, who seized upon education as his means of escaping the dread fate of most black Southerners at the dawn of the 20th Century. Simon's mastery of knowledge made him, first, a respected teacher, then principal, then, at last, founder of an institution of higher learning for African Americans. What is now Winston-Salem State University began as a twinkle in Simon's eye, materializing as a single building with one teacher and 25 students. In 2017, the thriving school celebrated its 125th anniversary.
Anna's father — Simon's youngest son — went to Fisk, then to law school at Yale, where he was the first black editor of Yale Law Review. He graduated with top honors, was inducted into the renowned Order of the Coif (another black first), all while working two jobs on campus to finance his studies. At age 27, Jack argued before the U.S. Supreme Court in a landmark case that eventually liberated black voting rights.
Until his death 60 years later, Jack returned to the courts frequently to win new and equal opportunities for African Americans in voting, school desegregation, and public accommodations cases. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes once commented that he had rarely heard an argument as polished and competent as Jack's.
Anna distinguished herself as a Ph.D. and university professor with a specialty in textiles and transculturation. After serving on Greensboro's City Council and on an array of boards and commissions, she traveled broadly and luxuriously, touching every continent except Antarctica.
These are just some of the many characters from the Simkins and Atkins families discussed in the book. Together, they were responsible for norm-shattering advances that generations now take for granted.