Simmons Remembered as a Principled Advocate

James Wright | 1/9/2013, 1:11 p.m.

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.