Their relationship defied convention, and yet it survived war and bitter family resentment.
He was buried in a white cemetery. She was buried in a black cemetery. Their marriage was unheard-of at the time.
Both William Ramey and his wife, Kittie Simkins, were born and raised in Edgefield, South Carolina, or “Bloody Edgefield,” a town known for its grisly murder rate in the antebellum South. Their relationship defied convention, and yet it survived war and bitter family resentment.
Ramey, born in 1840, came from a prominent white family. Simkins was born a slave in 1845, most likely on a property called Edgewood owned by Francis Pickens, who would become a Confederate governor.
The love affair could have been lost if not for Paula Wright, a seventh-generation descendant of the couple who inherited vintage photographs documenting eight generations of her family, dating to 1805.
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“I always had this strange, overwhelming feeling as a young girl when I used to look at my great-grandparents’ photo albums,” she said. “Almost every time I visited them, I would ask to see the photos.”
The box of 500 mostly black-and-white photographs offered a rare glimpse into an interracial marriage that took place nearly 100 years before Loving v. Virginia, the landmark Supreme Court ruling that struck down miscegenation laws.
In one photo, family members stand on the steps of their Edgefield home on the day of Ramey’s funeral in 1912. “On one hand, I thought, ‘Look what love made,’ ” Wright said of the photo. “And on the other hand, it saddened me because I know life was not easy for any of them.”
Close, but worlds apart
Simkins and her family worked from sunrise to sunset six days a week on the Edgewood plantation. “They were given a reprieve on Sundays, so they could go to church,” Wright, who lives in Atlanta, said in an interview.
Ramey was the youngest son of Nathaniel Ramey, a businessman who owned a small number of slaves. According to historians, William Ramey was one of six children; probably worked his father’s land; became a skilled carpenter; and discreetly educated slaves in his youth.
His father and Pickens had a mutual business interest in pottery, and young Ramey most likely attended parties at Pickens’ nearby plantation. That is probably where he met Simkins, in 1860, when Ramey was about 20 and she was about 14.
“It was said to be a mutual admiration,” Wright said. “But quite naturally, done from a distance. Whatever feelings may have come to the surface, they were quickly put to the side.”
A year later, Ramey followed his older brothers into the Civil War, and enlisted in the Confederate army. He was wounded near Richmond, Virginia, and was soon discharged. He returned to Edgefield to convalesce and began an affair with Simkins.
Their relationship was interrupted when Ramey re-enlisted in 1863. By then, Simkins had become pregnant by him. She did not know if Ramey would return alive, let alone return to her.
An acceptable union
Pickens opposed the mixing of races, but he did not send Simkins away. On April 8, 1864, she gave birth to a daughter, and that same month, Ramey returned to Edgefield for a three-month furlough. “I like to think that he came back to see his baby,” Wright said.
Back on the battlefield, Ramey was eventually captured and held prisoner until the war was over. When he returned to Edgefield, he continued to have a relationship with Simkins, who had remained on the plantation along with many former slaves.
“Although she was freed, she had nothing of material value,” Wright said. “There’s looting; there’s lawlessness; it’s a very scary time. So she stayed at the only place she really knew.”
She did eventually leave the plantation, and sustained herself as a seamstress and housekeeper. Ramey began a law career and later was appointed as a judge. At one point, he became engaged to a white woman, but he called the wedding off when his second child with Simkins, a son, was born in 1870.
He married Simkins two years later, in 1872, during an interlude in Reconstruction when statutes prohibiting interracial marriage had been suspended.
“They chose to remain committed to each other,” Wright said. “But they walked a very fine line when it came to their marriage. And they worked to keep it under wraps and, at times, to appear separate.”
Tonya Guy is the director of the Tompkins Library in Edgefield, South Carolina, which houses the South Carolina Genealogical Society’s collections. The marriage between Ramey and Simkins “was something that was accepted in the community at a time when it probably shouldn’t have been accepted,” she said.
The couple eventually raised nine children together in Edgefield. Ramey’s position as a judge probably gave him more leeway in society, Guy said, “but then, also, he’s in the public eye, so he has to be careful of what he does and how he acts in the community.”
Protecting an interracial legacy
In order to protect his family, Ramey listed himself in 19th-century census records as a head of household and his wife and their children as his servants. But that changed when he became ill in 1910.
He listed Simkins in the census that year as his wife, and said they had been married for 38 years. He sent her, their children and many of his assets to New York, where he believed they would be protected, after his sister threatened to take them away upon his death.
Ramey died in 1912, and his sister successfully petitioned the probate court to name her administrator of his estate, arguing that he had no widow and no children. But by then, most of Ramey’s assets had already been transferred to Simkins, who lived comfortably until her death 17 years later in 1929.
Wright knows that the story of Ramey and Simkins is full of contradictions. Many people assume that their relationship was yet another tragic example of a female slave being raped by a white man. She believes that this is far from the truth, and that the couple’s love was genuine.
“He could have easily repeatedly raped her, impregnated her and then, as most white men did, disregard both she and the children,” Wright said. “He had no obligation to her and none would have thought otherwise if he walked away from it all. That was the easy thing to do. But they didn’t take the easy road in this situation. It was said that William believed in doing what was right.”