Hundreds of people gathered at Shiloh Baptist Church on Jan. 3 to pay tribute to Barbara Lett Simmons, a dedicated political and community activist who died on Dec. 22, 2012 at 85.
In an upbeat celebration filled with scripture readings, Simmons was praised as a tireless advocate of public education and political power for her adopted home town.
“Anyone who was running for an office citywide knew they had to visit Barbara Lett Simmons,” said D.C. Councilman Vincent Orange (D-At Large). “I remember how she encouraged me to keep trying and never stop until I won my first seat on the council.
She will be greatly missed.”
Political analyst Mark Plotkin told the audience he admired Simmons’ tenacity. “When I was first asked to speak, I had lots of apprehension. Sometimes Barbara would come to events, listen to me speak and afterwards tear my speech apart with precision,” he said. “Barbara Lett Simmons was a great lady. I hope this time I have done her justice.”
Simmons worked as an educator and was instrumental in constructing the District’s first constitution.
D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray urged the audience to follow Simmons’ example. “If you want to celebrate Barbara’s legacy, do it by standing up and fighting until we get statehood,” Gray said.
One of Simmons’ memorable moments in her quest for D.C. statehood was in 2000 at the Democratic National Convention. Simmons made headlines when, as a elector from the District of Columbia, she abstained from casting her vote for then-Vice President Al Gore, the Democratic presidential candidate, as a protest over the city’s lack of voting representation in Congress.
“We had no idea Barbara was going to do this. She made the decision herself. She felt strongly about our rights for statehood and hated the fact that the Democratic Party and presidential candidates kept denying our rights over and over,” said Lillian Huff, one of Simmons closest friends and the person who introduced her to politics.
“People are still talking about it at the conventions.”
In 1973, Simmons won a seat on the D.C. Board of Education. During her 13-year tenure on the board, Simmons fought for the rights of poor and disabled students to have music and art instruction, along with physical education classes, in all schools. She was an advocate for equal educational opportunities for students with special needs.
“My son was blind and autistic. I watched how her politics opened doors that were never available to students like him,” said Diane Miller, a Ward 4 resident. “Through her strong convictions, Barbara made it possible for children with special needs to receive proper educational services, even if it meant going out of state.”
In 1977, Simmons created and hosted a cable television show for two years. Her radio program, “Educationally Speaking,” was broadcast for over 30 years on WYCB. The program focused on D.C. politics and public policy issues.
For more than a decade, Simmons served as a member of the D.C. chapter of the American Lung Association. “[The ] no smoking legislation that prevented smoking in government and public buildings, hospitals, restaurants, bars and around schools definitely has her signature on it,” said Huff.