By Calvin Pynn, contributor
A historical marker honoring renowned Harrisonburg educator Lucy Simms was unveiled to the public on Friday, Aug. 13, near the building which bears her name.
Simms, who was born into slavery in 1856, earned a degree from the Hampton Institute and then taught more than 1,800 Black students in Harrisonburg over a more than 50-year career. The Lucy F. Simms School – now the Lucy F. Simms Continuing Education Center – opened shortly after her death in 1934.
Stephanie Howard, the supervisor for the center, gave the ceremony’s opening remarks.
“The legacy of Simms School and Lucy F. Simms ties generations of African Americans together, and I am very grateful that we are able to continue to tell her story today,” Howard said, during the unveiling.
More than 100 people attended the ceremony, including Harrisonburg City Council members and state delegates Tony Wilt (R-Broadway) and Chris Runion (R-Bridgewater). Sen. Jennifer McClellan (D-Richmond), a gubernatorial candidate in this year’s Democratic primary, also attended and spoke at the event.
“To have the marker here at this school, in the neighborhood where Lucy Simms lived – it makes that history and that story so much more alive than if you just read about her in a book. And that is why it’s so important that we intentionally take the time to tell a complete story of our Commonwealth, and the people who made us who we are today,” McClellan said.
McClellan also emphasized Simms’ broader significance to the Civil Rights Movement in Virginia.
“People cannot be free if they are not educated, that is the foundation of our democracy. And what Lucy Simms understood was that for a people coming out from the bondage of slavery, they had to know how to advocate for themselves, and while the fight for the right to vote took a lot longer, she laid the foundation,” McClellan said.
Mayor Deanna Reed, who grew up in Harrisonburg’s historically Black Northeast Neighborhood, referred to Simms affectionately as ‘Ms. Lucy’ and described her legacy as personal to the neighborhood’s residents.
“Ms. Lucy grew up on the Hilltop Plantation, which is exactly in this area. She taught many of our family members and they taught us and passed down her legacy, her discipline, her integrity, and her nurturing heart,” Mayor Reed said.
Reed’s grandfather as well as her aunt, Doris Allen, who died earlier this year were among Simms’ students. In an interview with The Citizen following the unveiling, Reed recalled learning from Allen about Simms’ motherly nature as well as her stern approach as a teacher.
She cited a photo displayed inside the Lucy F. Simms Continuing Education Center, showing a group of male students wearing formal attire while in shop class.
“Could you imagine that? They’re in shop class, but they’re dressed in suits. And that’s the integrity that follows Ms. Lucy, because she taught students how to have confidence in themselves, how to be, and I just think that’s so special and unique of her, and that just carries on until today,” Reed said.
While the Lucy F. Simms School was already listed on the Virginia Landmarks Register and the National Register of Historic Places; it had yet to be recognized with a highway marker. The Harrisonburg Department of Parks and Recreation worked with the Virginia Department of Historic Resources to apply for the marker, with help from a committee consisting of Reed, Obie Hill and Sandra Bopp from the city’s Parks and Recreation Advisory Commission, Deputy City Manager Ande Banks, and Northeast Neighborhood Association president Karen Thomas.
The historical marker, which details Simms’ life, accomplishments, and contribution to Harrisonburg, was approved in March. Julie Lanagan, the director of the Department of Historic Resources, also spoke at the event.
“I like to think of markers as providing little soundbytes of history, which whet the appetites of passers by, and hopefully motivate them to dig deeper and learn more,” Lanagan said during her speech.
She also acknowledged that, until recently, most historical markers in Virginia overlooked Black history.
“While we can all be proud that the Virginia Historic Highway Markers Program is the oldest such program in the entire country, there is no denying that earlier markers failed to reflect the diversity of our shared history,” Lanagan said.
Of the 2,800 highway markers in Virginia, 370 are about Black history although nearly half of the recently approved markers reflect that history. The historical marker at the Lucy F. Simms School is one of 16 new historical markers approved this year.
Simms will be featured in a statue, named “The Emancipation Proclamation and Freedom Monument,” which is tentatively set to be unveiled on Brown’s Island in Richmond next month.
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