By Andrew Barnwell
July 23, 2013
Tom Simpkins is remembered by many older African-Americans in Aiken and Graniteville as one of the wealthiest men in Aiken, with a financial empire of area nightclubs and restaurants.
As one of the few self-made African-American entrepreneurs in the area, Simpkins made his money and bought his land almost exclusively in dealings with the African-American community.
But that was before desegregation. As blacks increasingly could go where they wanted, eat where they wanted and stay where they wanted, black business owners sometimes became desegregation’s victims. As powerful and widespread as Simpkins’ influence was, the money eventually dried up and his empire crumbled.
“During the time that he was making his money, his real money, his solid money, was during the time that everything was segregated,” said his daughter-in-law Lola Simpkins – then Lola Holloway – who married Tom Simpkins’ son Arthur.
Lola Simpkins, now 76, isn’t willing to go so far as to say her father-in-law’s business relied on segregation for success, but “that was the way it was.”
“When you think how far Columbia is from Aiken, and the speed the cars were going at that time, people were glad to see a black motel,” she said. But no longer able to compete with all-inclusive businesses, or offer services for blacks only, Tom Simpkins’ businesses faltered.
“During segregation, the downtown part of Aiken used to be filled with black business,” said Carl Polite, who lived through segregation and comes from a family that worked with the Simpkinses. Polite, who said his family made its money after segregation ended, now owns a lawn-care business.
“Used to be folks could make a lot of money selling cheap to black folk, but after desegregation, all those places went outta business,” Polite said.
Tom Simpkins’ family was dedicated to the goal of buying and possessing land, Lola Simpkins said, “because to them, land was power.” Through hard work and dedication, Simpkins built his financial empire in the 1940s and ’50s.
Family members say Simpkins started by working with his mother, Mariah Simpkins, selling fish sandwiches to Graniteville mill workers in the 1920s and ’30s. According to Tom Simpkins’ 2007 obituary in the Augusta (Ga.) Chronicle, he shined shoes and then cut hair before building a restaurant and cafe that had the only swimming pool in the area open to African-Americans.
He also built the Mountain Laurel Motel in Aiken, the only black motel between Columbia and Augusta, and the 6 Spot Cafe as well as the Forest Hill Lake Recreational Center.
Jacquelyn Simpkins, Lola Simpkins’ oldest daughter, remembers the 6 Spot with particular fondness. That the restaurant was all-black actually seemed to be a point of pride, she said.
“Tom was always real friendly to his grandchildren. He’d always be there with a smile, a piece of candy and a dollar,” Jacquelyn Simpkins said.
Despite his obituary, which said Simpkins “was successful in all his business ventures,” Lola Simpkins describes him as a man “who had good ideas, and knew how to make money, but couldn’t implement his ideas properly.”
|Hear Lola Simpkins describe how things changed with the end of desegregation.|
When he died at age 95, he was known as the Rev. Tom Simpkins and had built and was ministering at St. John’s Holiness Temple, according to his obituary.
Lola Simpkins says it was the 1960s that gave her father-in-law’s businesses their first major hit, with the construction of the federal government’s Savannah River Site nuclear weapons complex and its better-paying jobs. Simpkins couldn’t compete against those wages for workers, she said.
By the 1970s, desegregation meant Simpkins could no longer create all-black restaurants and motels. The increased mobility and freedom of African-Americans meant less business for Simpkins, and therefore less money.
The family still owns a little bit of land in Graniteville, but the memories of Tom Simpkins’ self-made financial success are his largest legacy, Lola Simpkins said.
“Tom was the glue that bound a lot of families together,” she said. “He didn’t leave much for Arthur and his other kids, but them and they children and they children’s friends got the same drive he had, and they got it honest.”