Edna S. Primus was born June 27, 1944, in Yemassee, SC to parent Hattie Smith Walker. She attended Mather Junior College in Beaufort, SC. Edna excelled in her studies at Mather and remained a lifelong member of the Mather-Benedict Alumni Association. From Junior College, she transferred to the University of South Carolina, graduating with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Political Science in 1966. She furthered her education by enrolling at the USC School of Law.
She became the first African American women graduate of the law school in 1972. She was also the first woman to pass the new bar exam created by the state’s bar organization. While waiting for the results of her bar exam, Edna began teaching law-oriented courses at Allen University. She taught students their rights under consumer protection laws and voluntarily taught remedial English to students who needed it.
In 1973, as the vice president of American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) South Carolina Chapter, Edna spoke to a group of women in Aiken County whose doctor refused to deliver babies to women on welfare with two or more children unless they were sterilized. After she offered the ACLU’s services for free, the Supreme Court of South Carolina disciplinary board reprimanded her for violating SC Bar rules against soliciting business in 1976. The Supreme Court of South Carolina approved this reprimand in 1977, which tainted Edna’s reputation as an attorney.
With the help of dedicated attorneys, she appealed the decision, and the U.S. Supreme Court heard her case. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in her favor, and the 1978 In re Primus decision affirms the right of advocacy groups to advance their political agendas through litigation, under the First Amendment. This court case is still taught in law schools today. She was at work when news of her legal victory was announced; she briefly celebrated the decision with her co-workers and then went right back into her office to continue working.
Edna was a partner of the firm Buhl, Primus, and Bagby with Herbert E. Buhl, III and Carlton B. Bagby for numerous years. In 1981, she was hired as the managing attorney for Palmetto Legal Services, a non-profit organization in Columbia that served the underprivileged, where she remained until she retired in 2010. She hosted numerous clinics outside work and offered legal advice to women housed at correctional facilities. Part of a quote she made to The State newspaper in 1973 adequately sums up her whole mission in life: “Basically, I just want to help people.”
Edna S. Primus died on November 29, 2019. She was predeceased by her husband Marcellous Primus. She is survived by her daughter, LaCelle Primus; and three grandchildren.