Marion B. Wilkinson


Biographical Database of Black Woman Suffragists
Biography of Marion B. Wilkinson, 1870-1956


By Maureen Elgersman Lee, Hampton University

Born in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1870, Marion (also Marian) Raven Birnie began a life that would radiate with accomplishment and service. The eldest daughter of Richard and Anna Frost Birnie, Marion Birnie learned that with privilege came responsibility and service. As a member of Charleston’s elite Black population, Birnie studied at the prestigious Avery Normal Institute. An 1888 graduate, Marion Birnie taught at Avery for nine years before marrying Robert Shaw Wilkinson, another Avery alumnus and member of the city’s Black upper class, in 1897.

Named for Robert Gould Shaw, famed leader of the Massachusetts 54th Infantry, Robert Shaw Wilkinson was born in Charleston in 1865. Also a graduate of Avery Institute, Wilkinson spent two years at West Point before moving on to earn a bachelor’s degree from Oberlin College. Eventually earning his Ph.D. from Columbia University, Wilkinson spent five years on the faculty at Kentucky State University in Louisville before joining the faculty at South Carolina State College (now University). In 1911, Robert Wilkinson began his twenty-one-year tenure as president of South Carolina State College during which he transformed the young institution. Tragically, Wilkinson died of pneumonia in March 1932 while serving as College president.

Deeply invested in education and the church, Robert and Marion Wilkinson arrived in Orangeburg, South Carolina in 1911, and soon established St. Paul’s Episcopal Mission where they served as administrators as well as founders. Orangeburg was the place for Marion B. Wilkinson to shine and serve. Known on campus as “Mother Wilkinson” in her position overseeing the women’s dormitory, Marion Wilkinson exemplified contemporary norms of womanhood, propriety, and service. Not limited to the bounds of her position or the ever-evolving College, Wilkinson left her mark on the local, state, and national levels. Among her accomplishments were leading the establishment of the local service organization known as the Sunshine Club, establishing a home for delinquent girls, and serving as the first president of the South Carolina Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs (SCFCWC). Like other race women, Marion Birnie Wilkinson’s name and legacy would far outlast her lived years. Clubs around the state of South Carolina have or continue to bear her name—including the Wilkinson Home for Girls (Cayce), the Marion Birnie Wilkinson Federation Club (Chester), and the Marion Birnie Wilson Club (Charleston).

Marion Birnie Wilkinson died on September 19, 1956, and is buried in Orangeburg Cemetery. The mother of four accomplished children—Helen Raven, Robert Shaw, Jr., Frost Birnie, and Lula Love—she was a lever for uplift in the private and public spheres that intersected Black women’s lives and work.

Sources: Joan Marie Johnson, “Louisa P. Poppenheim and Marion B. Wilkinson—The Parallel Lives of Black and White Clubwomen,” in South Carolina Women: Their Lives and Times University of Georgia Press, 2010); Joan Marie Johnson, “The Shape of the Movement to Come: Women, Religion, Episcopalians, and the Interracial Movement in the 1920s South Carolina,” in Warm Ashes: Issues in Southern History at the Dawn of the Twenty-first Century, edited by Winfred B. Moore, Jr., Kyle S. Sinisi, and David H. White, Jr.; Kibibi Voloria C. Mack, Parlor Ladies and Ebony Drudges—African American Women, Class, and Work in a South Carolina Community (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1999); “113th Founder’s Day Program,” South Carolina State University, February 22, 2009, at, accessed May 18, 2016; Edmund L. Drago and Marvin Dulaney, Charleston’s Avery Center: From Education and Civil Rights to Preserving the African American Experience (History Press, 2006); Papers of Robert Shaw Wilkinson, Box 205-1, Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, Howard University, Washington, D.C.; “Along the Color Line,” The Crisis 6:4 (August 1913). South Carolina State University, “113th Founders’ Day Program,” February 22, 2009,, accessed May 18, 2016.  

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