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Groundbreaking educator recounts remarkable life in a new memoir


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Amna Nawaz: She would become one of the country's most distinguished educators, president of three colleges, the first African American to head an Ivy League university.

But Ruth Simmons' new memoir takes us to a time before all that, to the very different circumstances in which she grew up.

Jeffrey Brown traveled to Houston for our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Ruth Simmons, Author, "Up Home: One Girl's Journey": One thing I have never forgotten is how to reach out to people.

Jeffrey Brown: For Ruth Simmons, it was a return to Hester House, a community center in Houston's Fifth Ward that played a large role in her childhood.

Ruth Simmons: How to add value to other people's lives.

Jeffrey Brown: Because you -- that's what happened for you.

Ruth Simmons: Because that's what happened to me.

Jeffrey Brown: What happened is the story Simmons, now 78, tells in "Up Home: "One Girl's Journey," which begins with these words:

Ruth Simmons: "I was born to be someone else, someone, that is, whose life is defined principally by race, segregation, and poverty. That, in the end, I did not become the person I was born to be still, at times, confuses and perplexes me."

Always been looking back.

Jeffrey Brown: You always have?

Ruth Simmons: I have, because imagine going from these circumstances to the presidency of an Ivy League university and meeting powerful people and wealthy people.

So, I have lived in a world that was so different from the world that I was born into.

Jeffrey Brown: That world was rural, deeply segregated East Texas in the 1940s and 1950s. Simmons was the youngest of 12 children of Fanny and Isaac Stubblefield, who worked as sharecroppers in the system of subservience and ever-potential violence that continued long after slavery ended.

Ruth Simmons: And that was the world that -- that my parents knew.

Jeffrey Brown: And that meant bound to the land, bound to the farm.

Ruth Simmons: Yes, absolutely.

Jeffrey Brown: No running water, no -- a lot of no's.

Ruth Simmons: A lot...


Ruth Simmons: A lot of no's, no dignity, no rights, really, to speak of, but a means of subsistence.

In the book, I describe my father and what this world did to him, and the prototypical shuffling and obsequiousness that are associated with the worst of that period.

Jeffrey Brown: Which you saw in him.

Ruth Simmons: Which I saw in him. And so I think we were all looking for a way to be proud and straight-backed.

Jeffrey Brown: When Simmons was 6, her family moved to Houston's predominantly Black Fifth Ward, where she attended Atherton Elementary and walked across the street to Hester House, which, seven decades later, continues to serve seniors. Chair volleyball, anyone?

Teens here in a dramatic karate display, and children taking part in a variety of after-school programs. Hester House, Simmons says now, saved her and other family members.

Ruth Simmons: There were few outlets for African Americans at that time. We couldn't go to certain places. We couldn't socialize outside of our area.

And so here was this wonderful community center, and one could come here as a young person and meet other young people.

Jeffrey Brown: Mm-hmm, and also pick up books off the shelves, which you write about.

Ruth Simmons: Especially get books.

Jeffrey Brown: Yes.

Ruth Simmons: And that began a fascination with books and with literature, which, of course, shaped my entire life.

Jeffrey Brown: She credits a number of adult mentors, most of all teachers at nearby Phillis Wheatley High School, for opening up her world and showing her previously unimaginable opportunities.

Ruth Simmons: They were on a mission, these teachers, let's face it, because here they were teaching in an era when we all thought nothing was possible. Their charge was to make sure they prepared us for the possibility that the world would change, the possibility. And that's what they were doing.

Jeffrey Brown: One of the most interesting parts of this in my reading was, in those years in high school, you describe making a conscious decision of how you were going to act, how you were going to speak.

Ruth Simmons: Yes.

Jeffrey Brown: Right? You were going to speak in a mannered, correct English. Why?

Ruth Simmons: Because once as a child people make fun of you, that's kind of an unforgettable experience. But there's -- that's just one element of it.

The other element of it is that I had so little, really, as a child, and I was very aware of how little I had of my own. But when it began to occur to me that I could possess these words, oh, my God, these words were available to me.

Jeffrey Brown: And you were going to make them yours.

Ruth Simmons: And I was going to make them mine. And, furthermore, no one could prevent my having them. They could prevent my going into a department store or sitting at a lunch counter, but they couldn't prevent my taking hold of these words for myself.

Jeffrey Brown: Graduating from Wheatley, she would go on to attend Dillard, the historically Black university in New Orleans, earn a doctorate in romance languages and literature from Harvard, and later become one of the nation's most prominent educators, president of Smith College, the first Black president of one of the all-women's Seven Sisters schools, Brown university, where she was the first woman president, and first African American to lead any Ivy League school.

And, most recently, in a return to Houston, the historically Black Prairie View A&M University, a public institution.

You have achieved a number of firsts. When you look back now, what are you most proud of?

Ruth Simmons: I have to say, I'm most proud of the fact that I remain the same person.

Jeffrey Brown: From this young girl that you're writing about.

Ruth Simmons: Yes, yes, which is what I was desperately seeking to accomplish.

I always tried not to think of myself as proving anything to anybody. I didn't want to prove that I could be president of an Ivy League university. I always wanted to be the best person I could be in the context of the values that shaped me.

And I wanted to make sure that, no matter what happened to me, I would still be that person who respected other people, who cared about difference, who listened to others. I cared more about those things than anything else.

Jeffrey Brown: In fact, Ruth Simmons' memoir of her childhood ends well before the accomplishments that would bring her renown.

And so, of course, the only appropriate spot for family and friends to join her for a book launch party, here at Hester House.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown in Houston.

Geoff Bennett: And there is more with Dr. Simmons online. You can hear her thoughts on what the end of affirmative action in college admissions could mean for higher education.

That's on our YouTube page.

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