On October 7, 2023, Dr. Lindsay Whorton, president of The Holdsworth Center, interviewed founding board chair Dr. Ruth J. Simmons about her recently published memoir “Up Home.” Henry Louis Gates, Jr. called the New York Times bestseller “a riveting work of literature, destined to take its place in the canon of great African American autobiographies.”
Regarded by peers as among the most respected university presidents of this generation, Simmons has spent 50 years in higher education and served as president of Brown University, Smith College and Prairie View A&M University, an Historically Black College and University (HBCU). She currently serves as a President’s Distinguished Fellow at Rice University and Adviser to the President of Harvard on its HBCU initiative.
Here are four takeaways from the hourlong conversation.Listen to full audio This link will take you to a signup form for access to audio of the full conversation
Support teachers. They have the power to change a child’s trajectory.
Simmons was born the youngest of 12 in a sharecropping family in Grapeland, Texas. Their small shack had no running water or electricity. Until she went to school at the age of six, she had no conception of a world outside her family. She credits her teachers with broadening her idea of what was possible for her and setting her on a path to college.
They were people who did more than work at a job. They were people who did more than settle for what the conditions were at that moment. They were people who looked out for young people who didn’t seem to have a future, and they gave us one.”
“When I was in high school, the world was a very separate one where we were relegated to different and substandard things. Yet (my teachers) could see beyond that to a future where we would be equal.
They began to suggest to me that I had the capacity to go beyond high school to college. They went beyond saying, ‘You can do this,’ and insisted on finding a way for me to do it. I had a teacher who had gone to Dillard University in New Orleans, and she convinced them to give me a scholarship. My teachers in high school (would) have me go into their closets and take clothes that I could pack for college.
That’s who they were. They were people who did more than work at a job. They were people who did more than settle for what the conditions were at that moment. They were people who looked out for young people who didn’t seem to have a future, and they gave us one.”
Show respect for everyone. You never know how it might impact their life – or yours.
When Simmons first went to school at six, she met her first teacher, Ida May Henderson. Until she stepped into the classroom, her life had been lived chiefly outdoors or inside a small shack with no lighting, books, toys or utensils.
“I walk into this classroom and it’s lit, it’s bright, it’s welcoming and it’s orderly. There’s a desk for me with my stuff, my pencil, my tablet, my books and so forth. And then there’s a woman in this classroom who I describe as light itself. It’s not just that the classroom was lit, but here was a bright, cheerful woman who welcomed us as if we mattered. We were country bumpkins. We didn’t have clothes to wear. We looked a mess.
And this woman looked at us and said, ‘Hello, baby, come on in. Here’s your desk.’
By her being open, irrespective of class, irrespective of the way I looked, irrespective of the way I talked – that gave me a sense of how you can reach people by just those kinds of common courtesies. That was the start of an effort to understand what it takes to be that kind of person, open to other people, respectful of other people irrespective of what they bring to the equation.”
Stay open to those who are different. We cannot move forward without bridging divides.
Simmons grew up during the Jim Crow era. Segregation and discrimination were a daily part of her life. Yet her teachers and her mother showed her how to cultivate a generous spirit and to be open to others.
“I did not want to become that person who thought the experiences I had were the totality of what was possible. And I did not want to victimize others the way I had been victimized.
I did not want to become that person who thought the experiences I had were the totality of what was possible.
That’s required me to be rigorous in trying to be open to other people who are different from me. (I have made a) constant effort to reach out and to learn at some deeper level who they are and what they care about and what their life is like.
I have never been able to conclude that we are making a better world by holding on to the things that are the most poisonous – the divisions among us, our resistance to understanding other people, our resistance to talking out differences that we may have.
What kind of world are we going to be if we don’t get past that kind of behavior? I spend my time talking to my students about that and making sure that if they are not absolutely determined to cross barriers, they are wasting their time.”
Take pride in your roots. They made you who you are.
As Simmons went off to college and began her ascent through higher education, her life and circumstances changed dramatically. But she never forgot who she was.
My mother was very kind and generous. People would come to our house, and she would go into a pantry that had almost nothing in it and she would give them everything. When we’d go to somebody’s house, she would forbid us to take anything from them because they might need it. She was just an enormously compassionate, caring person.
We’d sit on the porch and my mother would be shelling peas and we’d be sitting around her, and she would be telling us about life: What we should and shouldn’t do. How we should treat people. How we had to hold together as a family.
It’s these teachings that are still in my head that I live by every day. Fanny is the reason I am who I am. Everything I believe about how people should be treated, being generous to other people, everything I imagine when I’m looking at someone who is so different and thinking, ‘I must get to know you and try to understand why you are who you are,’ – that’s all from her, an uneducated woman who was the most magnificent human being I have ever known.
I began to appreciate the fundamental elements of who I am, shaped by my early life in Texas. I understood that I was not imitating somebody else. I was just being who I was.”