The Lucy F. Simms School
Still Singing Her Praises
In 1938, the Lucy F. Simms School was built on the site of the Gray family’s former Hilltop estate. For many years, the school did not have the resources to offer all grades, but by the mid-1950s, students were able to receive a full high school education. The sense of community and academic rigor that Miss Simms fostered in her lifetime continued to flourish at the new school, where parents and teachers worked together to encourage the younger generation's growth and success.
Many Roads to Simms
The Lucy F. Simms School was the only school for African Americans living in Rockingham County. Students commuted to school every day from as far Elkton, Grottoes, Bridgewater, New Market, and Mt. Jackson, passing as many as two white high schools on the way to theirs. Many students made the trip on segregated local bus routes. Others relied on parents and one another to make that important journey every day, carpooling at first and eventually getting ahold of a makeshift bus. A few students traveled over forty miles to school from homes in Woodstock, Virginia and Franklin, West Virginia, staying with friends or family during the week so that they could get an education.
"I was very nervous, scared, you know, a country boy...now I've gotta make that trip to the city...But I was excited because it was something new, something different...The only downside of it--I had to get up at six o'clock in the morning!"
The Value of Education
At the Lucy F. Simms School, students took classical liberal arts courses such as reading, writing, mathematics, and the arts. Music, theater, and drawing were integrated into every aspect of the students’ experience, fostering learning, creativity, self-expression, and community involvement. They also received industrial arts and home economics training to prepare them for the available employment after graduation. Teacher Barbara Blakey also offered business classes, and many Simms students became trailblazers in Harrisonburg and beyond. In 1969, Wilhelmina Johnson became the first African American to be employed by Harrisonburg Social Services. In 1966, Sheary Darcus Johnson became the first African American to enroll at Madison College, graduating in 1970 and earning her Ph.D. from the University of Virginia in 1988.
“We never heard such a statement as ‘no school today.’ There was always school.”
Educating the Whole Person
Teachers at the Lucy F. Simms School were well-respected community members who worked hard to make sure their students mastered a wide range of subjects. While academics were their primary focus, teachers also emphasized cooperation, courtesy, and fun. Receiving an education from the Lucy F. Simms school meant more than getting good grades -- it was also about creativity, integrity, and citizenship.
“That school . . . brought together young people from the county and from outside the county . . . because this was the only black school with modern facilities . . . The thing is the teachers at Lucy F. Simms School knew the needs of the black students and there were always activities going that brought the community together . . . It was all one big, shall I say, family.”–Ruth Toliver
Great Teachers Remembered
Mary Awkard Fairfax
A graduate of Effinger Street school, Miss Fairfax received her master’s degree from Columbia University and taught at the Lucy F. Simms school for 24 years. She used her talents in performing arts to organize the school plays and operettas and was a pianist for the school’s chorus.
Miss Blakey moved to Harrisonburg in 1955, teaching business at the Lucy F. Simms School. She received her Bachelor of Science degree from Virginia State College and her master’s degree from Madison College. She is remembered for teaching skills that extended beyond the classroom.
Professor Harris served as principal at the Effinger Street School and the Lucy F. Simms School from 1917 to 1951. He earned a master’s degree in Greek from Lincoln University and, according to Ruth Toliver, was a role model for his students: “He would make them look within themselves to determine what was important.”
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