It was a dark and stormy night. In an archive that knows how to keep its secrets. Patrick Lozada, Special Collections student assistant. *cue jazzy saxophone*
Well it was something like that (I watched the Maltese Falcon recently). Anyway, last week in our weekly meeting with the Quaker historian Emma Lapsansky, Jon William (a colleague working on the Morris-Shinn-Maier papers) mentioned that he had found a China related document that had Cadbury’s name on it that might be of interest. Although on further inspection it turned out to be from a William E. Cadbury and not William Warder Cadbury (there are apparently only five Quaker names), the contents of the letter still proved interesting. It revealed that Haverford had created a body called the Simkin committee for the sole purpose of maintaining a Quaker mission in China led by one Robert Simkin. Who was this guy? To the matriculate catalog!
Well that wasn’t that helpful; other than telling me that he graduated in 1902, this bird wasn’t talking. I then went to ask Diana Franzusoff Peterson: College archivist, special collections guru, and Quakers in Asia Extraordinaire.
She knew this Simkin fellow and had been holding out on me this whole time. I should have known. Turns out she had written a whole piece on him.
As a student at Haverford College, Robert Simkin (1879-1958) was president of the Y.M.C.A. and elected to Phi Beta Kappa. After graduation in 1903, he earned another B.A. from Harvard in 1904, a B.D. from Union Theological Seminary in 1906 and an M.A. from Columbia in 1915. He was recorded a minister in the Society of Friends in 1905 and began his sojourn as a foreign missionary in 1906. Supported at first by English Quakers through the Friends Foreign Missionary Council and later by the American Friends Board of Foreign Missions in Richmond, Indiana, Simkin also received aid from members of the Haverford College community as Haverford’s missionary in West China from 1917-1944. He was principal of Union Middle School in Chengtu, West China from 1912-13, acting Vice-President of West China Union University in Chengtu in 1919, and taught Old Testament and Church History there up until 1932.
Unfortunately, his letters were sleeping with the fishes (oops, wrong genre). Or were they? It turns out Margaret T. Simkin, his dame, had written a memoir entitled Letters from Szechwan: 1923-1944. Letters from Szechwan turned out to be a wonderful and rich account of early 20th century China using snippets from both her and Robert’ letters as well as a few pictures to tell the story of their trip.
The selection of letters she presents in the book brings a shockingly progressive perspective to the Chinese conflict. Unlike nearly all missionary accounts of pre-CCP China, presents a sympathetic perspective towards the Chinese people and condemns Western imperialism. It also gives insight into how Quakers deal with war when it is not a distant thing but rather a present reality. In the midst of a country constantly at war with itself as well as with imperial Japan, the Friends mission in Szechwan consistently spoke out against militarism and went as far as to resign their positions when colleges began to implement military drill.
The existence of Mrs. Simkins book also presents an interesting fact from an archival perspective. The couple’s letters still exist and are in good condition. I had to find out where these letters were. A little digging on ancestry.com, Archive Grid, an a few other sites did yield some interesting results. The couple settled in California where they engaged in academic as well as peace and social justice work, founding an organization called Woolman House at the University of Southern California. Robert Simkin died in 1958 at 79 while Margaret Simkin died at the ripe old age of 101 in 1993. Claremont College has some of their papers as well as an oral history that Margaret recorded, but they clearly do not have the enormous collection that Margaret drew upon to write her book.
So where are they?! As of 1977 according to Letters from Szechwan the letters were being preserved by Fannie C. Timberlake, however there is no mention of where those letters would go in the future and I have not been able to find any record of Mrs. Timberlake in public databases. Me and Dianna’s best guess is that the letters are kicking around in the family somewhere. But who in the family would have taken the letters? The couple had two daughters: Dorothy Ellen and Margaret Ruth Simkin. Unfortunately , there’s no information that we could find as to their whereabouts other than that Dorothy attended William Penn and Whittier Colleges and that Margaret Ruth attended high school somewhere in Los Angeles. They were all born in the early twentieth century so they would be in their seventies or eighties now. If they married someone they may have changed their name. It’s a mystery that I don’t think I can solve on my own. But you might be able to. If you know someone from this branch of the Simkin family that did missionary work in China or know anything about the whereabouts of these papers, please send me an e-mail at email@example.com or send special collections an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. It’d be really cool to learn where all this rich material ended up.