WHEN RUTH SIMMONS WAS A CHILD growing up in Houston’s Fifth Ward, it was customary to take a bath only once a week. She remembers days when she was called nigger by white youths in passing cars. Today Simmons—the great-great-granddaughter of slaves and the twelfth child of a Texas sharecropper and a domestic worker—is the president of Smith College, in Northampton, Massachusetts, and the first black woman to head a top-ranked American college or university.
On a November morning in Manhattan, the 53-year-old Simmons looked sharp and fresh in a navy blue suit and a strand of pearls. She was in town to accept a Human Achievement Award from the National Urban League. But first, over scrambled eggs and coffee at the Harry Cipriani restaurant on Fifth Avenue, she reflected on her origins and how far she has come.
“Education took me out of the Fifth Ward,” she said. “There’s no other way that I could have done it.” Simmons credits her public school teachers with exposing her to the arts, which fueled her desire to learn more about the world: “When I was a teenager, my high school was taking me to plays in the city. I was introduced to theater, the art world, and levels of academic scholarship because my teachers took an interest in developing me and they made those things possible. What I did that was unremarkable was that I stuck with it. I got into school and I kept going and, when an opportunity presented itself, I took advantage of it.” Simmons says her parents instilled a strong work ethic in their children. Although only one of her siblings graduated from college—a brother who is now a high school basketball coach in Houston—the others managed to find good jobs, working as a fireman, a construction worker, a computer programmer, and a hospital worker, among other occupations.
Simmons says that one particular teacher sticks out in her mind: Vernell Lillie, her eleventh-grade English and drama teacher at Houston’s Phillis Wheatley High School. “She got us involved in debate tournaments, and we traveled and learned to speak publicly,” she said. “I think I always understood, coming through school, that life was segregated and that there was a particular place for me in Texas society. One thing different about what Vernell Lillie taught was that there were lots of places that one’s imagination could go.”
After graduating from Wheatley, Simmons went to Dillard University, in New Orleans. She graduated summa cum laude in 1967, then spent the following academic year studying in France on a Fulbright scholarship before going on to Harvard University, where she earned a master’s degree and a doctorate in romance languages. Although she had scholarships in college and graduate school, she had to work to meet expenses. During her junior year at Dillard, she cleaned houses, and in graduate school she had a part-time job interviewing prospective Radcliffe students.
She married Norbert Simmons, whom she met while she was at Dillard and he was at Tulane, after she returned from France, and then they moved to Boston, where she started her graduate studies at Harvard and her husband attended Boston University School of Law. They had two children—a son, Khari, who is 25 and a music composer living in Atlanta, and a daughter, Maya, who is 22 and lives in Northampton—but were divorced in 1988.
Simmons’ love for school led her to the academic life. “I felt that anything that could take a child and turn her into the person I was becoming must be the most powerful place on earth,” she said. “I had the best teachers in the world in Texas. I know that now. From the time that I first went to school, I loved what I did so much I can’t even begin to describe it. The teacher had to spend time after school trying to find other stuff for me to do because it was never enough.
“I think whenever you’re born into very limited circumstances, it creates a desire in you to have a comfortable life and to have a life that is without those limitations. I had a lot of ambition. Not to do what I’m doing now, but to get through school and get a job as a secretary to support myself and help my parents.”
Segregation created a strong sense of community in the Fifth Ward and a lot of support because everybody went to the same community centers and churches. “We made do like every family, but since most people were in the same situation, we didn’t feel isolated in our poverty and we didn’t feel poor,” Simmons said. On the other hand: “You were always afraid to walk down the street because you could be harassed if you were at the wrong place at the wrong time. The most noticeable aspect of segregation was when we were