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Ruth Simmons’ hardscrabble journey to elite higher education

WHEN the galley for Ruth J. Simmons’ memoir — Up Home: One Girl’s Journey — arrived in my mailbox a few months ago, I couldn’t wait to dive into it. I had been looking forward to reading about the tumultuous battles she had fought and, obviously, won on her way to be seated in the upper echelon of the country’s most prestigious colleges and universities.

Surely, there had been a few cat fights before she claimed the president’s office of Smith College in 1995 — the first Black to do so. After all, in “My Mother’s Daughter: Lessons I Learned in Civility and Authenticity,” an essay published in 2008 by Humanities Texas, she mentioned that when she first took the helm of the elite women’s school in Northampton, Massachusetts, she was frequently asked, “How can someone like you become president of a place like Smith?

That inquiry seemed to expose a hint of racism and resentment if you ask me.

“The first few times I got the question I was rather perplexed; as it continued, I became a little annoyed,” Simmons wrote in that essay, noting that she had been a faculty member, moving up in the ranks and perhaps “in training” for a higher post.

By the time she departed Smith, her imprimatur as its president was all over the place. She had made changes small and big, including doubling its endowment — from about $450 million to $900 million. Still, there were a few students who welcomed her decision to leave, having complained about Simmons’ tendency to demand proper diction and language instead of what she described as “mall speak.”

How did all that happen?

Simmons doesn’t share the story of her historic leaps from Smith to Brown — or her more recent turn as president of Prairie View A&M University in Texas, which ended with a tad of controversy over her administrative authority. Maybe we’ll hear more about those experiences when she speaks on Sept. 26 at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture as the 2023 National Endowment for the Humanities Jefferson Lecturer in the Humanities.

Up Home provides some clarity about how she could become a leader of two elite institutions and adviser to the presidents of others, including Rice and Harvard universities. Released this week by Random House, the book is a fascinating and simply told memoir.

It is not a simple tale, however.

Up Home is a window into African American history and culture writ large. It reveals how family bonds, kinships (real and constructed), village-like behaviors, dedication of Black teachers, sacrifice, ambition and perseverance fueled the advancement of a people who, though only a few generations out of chattel slavery, managed to become leaders of some of America’s mainstream corporations and institutions.

“I was born to be someone else. Someone, that is, whose life is defined principally by race, segregation, and poverty,” Simmons wrote.

I and other African Americans know exactly what she means.

Simmons’ great-grandparents had been slaves in Virginia. But their children, Richard and Doc Campbell, left that state traveling southwest. Along the way Richard married Emma Johnson. Later, Doc married Bella Tryon; the four smartly pooled their resources and purchased 60 acres of farmland near Daly in East Texas. Simmons’ mother, Fannie Campbell, grew up there. But after she married Issac Stubberfield, the two moved out on their own, becoming sharecroppers. They eventually had 12 children — Simmons the last, born in 1945.

The poverty they lived through was suffocating. For a considerable time, “there was never enough to eat. This state of affairs prompted near-fatal attempts to find food. One of my sisters once tried to eat a raw bird; another ate lye from a can she found in the house.

“Although we ate indiscriminately all that was available, a hollow feeling lingered in our stomachs,” wrote Simmons.

By the time she came along, her older siblings had already begun relocating to Houston. Elbert and Atherine married “the Hicks twins,” Erma and Herman. Chester, the next in line, frequently got in trouble; eventually he moved to Chicago. Wilford, perhaps the kindest and her mother’s favorite, soon joined the Army. They each managed to send money back home.

Still, the living wasn’t easy. Simmons’ father was not without his own ambition — albeit quiet and somewhat small-scale.

The family moved from one sharecropping farm to another. There were always instructions about white folks. “Encounters with whites often meant danger. … The danger of speaking imprudently or with too much authority. The danger of appearing too proud. The danger of being in the wrong place. The danger of overstepping well-understood boundaries. …

“So our parents urged us to observe the proper behavior when encountering whites. And out of fear, we did.”

In Latexo, they found a better house than where they had lived on the Murray farm. It looked out across a field, but there wasn’t much else around. They grew their own food and made their own clothing, frequently from rough cotton sacks; only rarely did they order from the Sears catalog. On Saturdays, they heated water on the stove and took turns taking baths in a metal tub. They used horse-drawn wagons to get around the area — although when they did eventually get a car, bought for the family by Wilford, Simmons’ mother never learned to drive. One the things Simmons said she loved most about those early sharecropping days was listening to hymns that were sung as people worked.

Latexo proved life-altering for Simmons. At 6 years old, she started at W.R. Banks, an all-Black segregated school. “That experience began a process of definition and discovery that was to shape not just that period but my entire life,” which happened, in no small measure, as a result of the intervention of her teacher, Miss Ida Mae Henderson.

Simmons wrote that she walked into class that first day with “thick, unstraightened plaits; large bulging eyes; a homemade, ill-fitting dress; and the odor of the bacon fat my mother had smeared on my legs to treat my ashy skin.”

“Miss Ida Mae made me think I was the princess of W.R. Banks — equal to or better than any other child in her class. …

“She invited me into a world of mystery and magic,” wrote Simmons, adding that Henderson introduced her to “the simple premise that life and exercise of the mind bestow enormous power and promise.”

After Latexo, the family moved to Houston’s 5th Ward, where housing was better and she was enveloped by her older siblings, their spouses and children. After her mother, her brother’s wife Erma may have been the greatest influence. “She spurned laziness or excuses of any kind and insisted that hard work and ambition could overcome the discrimination that seemed to paralyze others.”

Erma believed that girls’ lives could be “independent, useful, respected.”

Simmons’ mother, who worked as a domestic, continued to keep a tight rein on her younger children, worried about the lifestyle of the city. There were a few times the teenager challenged parental authority and paid the price of a whipping for her transgression.

However, the greatest attraction for Simmons was books, which she often read at the Julia C. Hester House, where there was a library and an enrichment program. At E.O. Smith Junior High School, Simmons met Mrs. Modria Caraway, a social studies teacher who took “a special interest” in her.

Simmons graduated as “the highest-ranking student” in her class. Then, it was on to Phillis Wheatley High School, where she met Miss Marie Farnsworth and other dedicated instructors.

Near the end of her first year there, tragedy struck. Her mother died after a battle with kidney disease; it nearly broke Simmons, leaving her for a while unsure of herself and her future while managing a seemingly disinterested father.

At Wheatley, Miss Vernell Lille pulled Simmons into the drama group. That may have saved her, giving her temporary focus. As graduation neared, she contemplated college. With the urging of Lille, Simmons applied to two colleges. She settled on Dillard University in New Orleans, after receiving a $1,000 scholarship — no small amount in the 1960s.

Simmons asked her father if she could attend: “Yes,” he said, “as long as it doesn’t cost me one red penny!”

She didn’t reveal that conversation to anyone. Instead, she reached out to her brother Wilford, who through much of her undergraduate college career provided financial support. Lille, Caraway and Farnsworth — all teachers at Wheatley — were concerned she didn’t have “suitable” college clothing. The latter opened her closet to Simmons. From time to time, one or more of the trio also opened their wallets.

There were challenges aplenty in college — summer at Sarah Lawrence, study abroad, questions about whether to switch majors. Simmons was bolstered by her family, university faculty and the cadre of Black teachers who helped inject her with confidence. And always, there was the memory of her mother.

While reading Up Home, the word “grit” kept coming to me. Simmons had it in spades.

I also kept thinking about how so many of her experiences paralleled my own story: for instance, the grandfather who felt my going to college was a waste of his money since all I would do is get married; and Miss Ara Dozier, the junior high school social studies teacher who urged me to apply to New Orleans’ then-academic high school, which I did and was accepted.

During this current era in the United States with forces of white supremacy, overt institutional racism and even devastating self-loathing found at the core of extreme Black youth violence, Simmons’ story is a crucial reminder of the challenging journey made by African Americans and the need to protect their tangible and intangible victories.

That 60 acres of land upon which the Campbells built their first homestead is now owned by Simmons. It is “worth owning,” she wrote in Up Home, “because it represents the strivings of the Campbells and Stubblefields and the deep and willful connections that Mama and Daddy made to each other and the region.”

Up Home: One Girl’s Journey (224 pages, $27) was published Sept. 5 by Random House.

Photo:Rocky Kneten; this article first appeared in The


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