One of the District's leading political activists who used her moment on the national stage to highlight her support for statehood and to protest the disrespect meted out to the city by Congress, recently died.
Barbara Lett Simmons, a political operative and former member of the D.C. Board of Education passed on Dec. 22 at the age of 85. Her funeral was held at Shiloh Baptist Church in Northwest on Thursday, Jan. 3.
Simmons was known as an outspoken yet articulate champion of D.C. statehood and the education of the city's children.
"Barbara Lett Simmons was a friend of mine and of many others, but she was a friend of the city to whom she gave so much passionate devotion," D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton said. "She had an instinct to serve and a focused determination to serve those who needed service the most."
Norton, 75, and Simmons were rivals for the Democratic Party nomination for delegate in September 1990. After the primary, Simmons became one of Norton's staunchest allies and had the delegate's support for her most controversial political stand in 2000, when as a District elector for presidential candidate Al Gore, she opted not to vote for the Democratic ticket.
"I will never forget her gutsy protest as one of the three D.C. presidential electors in 2000 when she abstained from casting the expected vote for Albert Gore Jr.," Norton said. "Barbara used the city's one national right – its electoral vote – to stand up for her city and to amplify its protest against the denial of Congressional voting rights and statehood."
Eugene Kinlow, public affairs director for DC Vote, a Northwest non-government organization dedicated to full D.C. political rights, agreed with Norton.
"Many people thought that she should not have done that," said Kinlow, 50. "But Barbara Simmons played the situation like a true politician and played that card and many people said later that she was right to do that."
Strong political stands were a part of Simmons' makeup. While on the Board of Education, to which she was elected to in 1973 and was defeated for re-election in 1985, she was a strong supporter of D.C. Schools Superintendent Barbara Sizemore who thought that District children deserved to know the many contributions of blacks in all fields of endeavor – a controversial view at that time.
Simmons also launched a piano competition for District youth. Ethel Delaney Lee, a longtime political activist in Ward 4, said Simmons had a way of mixing education and politics effectively.
"I remember when I first was in her presence and that was at a meeting at Shepherd Elementary School," said Lee, 85. "She was speaking about issues that were going on in the school and I was impressed with her command of the English language. That day, I knew that she was going to be somebody."
The Ward 4 Democrats annual celebration is named in honor of Lee and she noted that Simmons was honored recently by the organization at the event.
Simmons also had a passion for national politics outside of D.C. voting rights. She was a founding member in 1984 of the organization now known as the National Congress of Black Women. The organization was established after former presidential candidate and Vice President Walter Mondale failed to consider a black female as his vice presidential running mate.
E. Faye Williams, president of the organization, described Simmons as "honest and assertive" even though some of her ideas didn't meet the approval of its members.
"She was right there with us when we got started," said Williams who lives in Southwest. "Barbara spoke her mind and was honest and assertive. She truly cared about the causes she espoused and did not worry about the consequences."
Simmons was a graduate of Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, Mich., and taught in the Montgomery County, Md. and District of Columbia school systems. A native of Battle Creek, Mich., Simmons also served as president of the District's chapter of the American Lung Association.
A mother of two sons and the wife of the late Samuel Simmons, Barbara Simmons was known as one who fought the good fight.
"She was a giant in the city and she will be missed," Lee said.