Head of the Class
Most people can't believe I became an Ivy League president after growing up in the Fifth Wardbut no one's more surprised than my own family.
WHEN YOU ARE A CHILD, the experience of moving to a new place leaves an indelible memory. My family moved to Houston from a Grapeland sharecropper farm in 1952. Keep in mind, that was the period of the Great Migration, and when the mechanical harvester came into use, a lot of people—blacks, particularly—migrated north looking for employment. Well, my family was too large to go north, so we went to the city.
We moved onto Lee Street, which was just next to a railroad yard in Houston’s Fifth Ward. I was the youngest of twelve children, and my family members—parents, brothers, sisters, nieces, and nephews—all lived in the same little complex, a neighborhood composed of small wooden-frame houses. That made the transition easier, but it was traumatic to go off to a new school as a seven-year-old. I was very conscious of being different in that environment. Naturally, people made fun of us because we were country bumpkins.
My father got a job as a janitor at the Bama factory; that was a jelly-making company. My older sisters took care of me because my mother was busy cooking, cleaning, and doing so many things. She was at home when we were still young, but families dropped off huge bundles of clothing, and she ironed at home. On occasion, she would do what was called “day’s work,” which meant she didn’t have a full-time job with one family. She would do a day here, a day there for different families, cleaning houses. I followed her around on a couple of those trips. My mother was quiet. Very dignified. Someone whom people greatly loved and admired because she was such a kind person. But she was serious. You couldn’t mess with her: When she told you to do something, you had to do it. I think she helped me understand how important it was to do whatever one does very well.
My family also had a strong and dominant father and seven brothers. The girls in my family were brought up to believe that men came first and that we were secondary in every respect. That was just the way that it was. It didn’t mean that we accepted it: My sisters, in fact, wouldn’t willingly take a back seat to the boys in the family. But still, it was always understood that men would be served by the women, and only after they were finished eating did the women eat. If I were at home today, in Houston, where all my brothers and sisters still live, it wouldn’t surprise me if men were still served first. That’s just one of those traditional things that really hasn’t gone away yet. But I was always independent-minded. And because I was the youngest child, my family tolerated my abhorrent behavior. I went my own way, and I didn’t think my wishes should be subservient to boys.
I was always encouraged to work hard, to study very hard, and to develop my own personal skills and my own humanity. Growing up, I always felt I was being fairly aggressive in pursuing my interests, and I was unwilling to accept a second-class status. But in truth, a lot of this was confusing to me because this was before the civil rights era, and frankly, blacks were so subjugated that being a woman and black—it was hard to know whether the limitations placed on you were gender related or race related. I didn’t even recognize segregation as a line that I could cross. Most of us never thought the country would be desegregated. I was doing what I thought was possible within the parameters set for me by society, not anticipating that one day I would be free to pursue a career like the one that I have. I never expected to be a significant public figure.
I was not one of the in crowd when I was in high school, but I was in the drama club and a number of other clubs. My drama teacher, Vernell Lillie, insisted that I apply to college. Back then, teachers helped me in spite of the fact that I was annoying. I was a brat. Insufferable. I think I was spoiled from being the youngest, and I was also one of those sort of goody-two-shoes types. I was pretty arrogant and otherwise not a very pleasant person to be around. I think it was in part a reaction to the loss of my mother, who died of kidney disease right before my junior year in high school. I had such a terrible time recovering from that. I suppose I hid behind my arrogance a little bit.
When I graduated from high school and left to go to Dillard University, my brother put me on the train from Houston bound for New Orleans. There’s a reason I can’t forget that train ride, you know? When I think about that today, it seems amazing. I had never been away from home, and there I was on the train, alone and terrified. I think I had a footlocker and not much else. When you go off to college, you’re thinking, “Well, I’ve made it. I’m able to go off to college,” but to know that a parent isn’t there to see it just makes it very hard. During my first year of college, my grief for my mother became more acute. I would say that year was one of the hardest in my life.
It was also one of the most significant, because I was writing for the school newspaper. I wrote scathing editorials. I protested every injustice on campus. I remember thinking it was so outrageous for the university to require people to attend chapel. I believed it was a violation of the principles of our democracy. Of course, this was a historically black college. There were no Jews or Muslims at Dillard. But the fact that I thought it was important to boycott chapel—on principle—was probably one of the most important things I ever did in my entire life, especially since I was facing the prospect that I wouldn’t be permitted to graduate. I was only seventeen years old.
It never occurred to me when I got married as a 22-year-old that I shouldn’t automatically follow my husband around. For the first ten years or so, I pretty much followed him as he pursued whatever he decided he might want to do. I went to Harvard to study Romance languages in 1969 because he went to Boston University. I would say I was following a conventional pattern. But when my husband and I separated, in 1983, and I was no longer shaping my career to accommodate his, I had to think, “Well, under ideal circumstances, what would I like to do?” College administration allowed me to feel that I was directly contributing to improving educational access for disadvantaged students. Making education available is one of the highest callings, and I am lucky that I was able to fulfill my interest and social commitment in this way.
The first time I really made a decision for myself was in 1983, when I decided to go to Princeton University to work. By that time I was the dean of graduate studies at the University of Southern California, but I had two children, and I knew that I wouldn’t be able to manage as a single parent commuting three hours a day in Los Angeles. I wasn’t prepared to sacrifice that kind of time with my kids. I needed a different solution. So I went to a small town, where I would be able to manage the demands of picking kids up from school, getting home to prepare meals and help with homework—that’s actually why I took the job at Princeton.
These days, as the president of Brown University, I think that the biggest worry I have professionally is to ensure stability and hopefulness. Despite the fact that I am the first African American woman president of an Ivy League university, I try not to concern myself with being a pioneer or a role model. I understand that if I simply do my best, I will be honoring my commitment to social justice and equality. I have reached a point in my career that makes everything I’ve done before relevant. In my mind, there is no other place for me to go from here.
I visited Houston a couple of weeks ago. My neighbors, my family, and friends—they think there is some big mistake, as if I’m a fraud who’ll be found out eventually. For people who knew me as a brat, it’s hard to see me as this weighty person, especially a university president, for goodness’ sakes. They are still trying to get used to the idea that maybe I’m a serious person.
Ruth Simmons, 57, became president of Brown University in 2001. She lives in Providence, Rhode Island.