C O LUMBIA, S.C. — Neighbors were chagrined last week when the police here found the body of a 75-year-old woman who had frozen to death, alone in her house, during unexpectedly frigid weather.
But they were shocked this week when they learned that the woman, Juanita W. Goggins, had been a civil rights trailblazer who in 1974 became the first black woman elected to the South Carolina legislature.
Now residents of this normally neighborly Southern capital say they are feeling regretful, and slightly guilty, for allowing one of its most revered figures to disappear into a sleepy ranch house with little company. Possibly mentally ill, living without running water or heat, Ms. Goggins is believed to have died on Feb. 20 — when temperatures dropped below freezing — but her body was not discovered for 11 days. Several neighbors in her elderly, mostly black community in downtown Columbia said they had learned the full scope of Ms. Goggins’s accomplishments only from her obituaries. At the peak of her political career, in the 1970s, she twice visited P resident Jimmy Carter at the White House and was the first black woman appointed to the United States Civil Rights Commission. In the legislature, where she represented Rock Hill on the northern border of the state, for three terms in the 1970s, Ms. Goggins, a Democrat, helped pass key legislation for improving elementary school education and public health. Last year, a stretch of Highway 5 was renamed in her honor. “She was truly a mover and a shaker, so well-liked and so well-loved by so many,” said Representative John King, 33, who holds her former seat in the General Assembly. Family members suspect that Ms. Goggins had developed dementia or Alzheimer’s disease in her final years. She rarely left her small, cluttered house on Carousel Circle except occasionally to ride the bus to Bi-Lo for groceries. In 16 years as her next-door neighbor, Erskine Hunter, 83, said he was allowed inside only once, to fix a water heater. Continue reading