Spotlight on Dr. Ruth Simmons
Upon being sworn in as president of Brown University in July 2001, Dr. Simmons not only became the first female president of Brown University, but also the first black president of an Ivy League institution. Following the footsteps of early champions of education such as Mary McLeod-Bethune, Dr. Simmons continues to inspire through education and knowledge. Dr. Simmons resigned as president in 2012, after receiving numerous honors.
When I wrote this blurb in 2014, my website focused mostly on poetry (hence the poem below), and so, while I took the time to highlight some black history, I didn’t take the time to really discuss why I chose a particular person or why their contribution to black history is worth noting. Here, I’m adding that information
One of the key ingredients of slavery was keeping the slaves “dumb,” and one of the easiest ways to do that was to prohibit slaves from reading. While white children may have attended school or had a private tutor, black children were used as slave labor in the fields, maid services in the house, or as a playmate for the white children. When laws were finally passed freeing my ancestors, many of them couldn’t even read the declarations. If you lived in an area where none of the black people had been stealthy enough to learn how to read, you were dependent on the slave owners (who lost a war fighting for the state’s right to keep you a slave) to relay this news. What kind of job or career can you cultivate without education? This could be why many freed blacks stuck with agriculture, and participated in sharecropping. Education was the focus of the legendary Mary McLeod-Bethune. It is important to see present day black people breaking barriers in spaces we have traditionally been unwelcome.
Let’s look at some context too. The Ivy League is considered to be the premiere set of institutions in the US. These schools are notoriously hard to get accepted to, have extremely powerful and wealthy alumni, and are associated with prestige. There are 8 universities in the Ivy League; the oldest of them is Harvard, founded in 1636 and the youngest is Cornell, founded in 1865. In 2001, when Dr. Simmons was sworn in as president of Brown, there had been
- 17 presidents at Brown
- 26 presidents at Harvard
- 18 presidents at Columbia
- 10 presidents at Cornell
- 18 presidents at Princeton
- 7 presidents at University of Pennsylvania
- 22 presidents at Yale
- 17 presidents at Dartmouth
This means that it took 365 years and 135 presidents across all 8 schools, to select a black person as president.
The original desire.
Power such to see
That which gives birth
Choices and ideas,
Word strung together
To form newness
For better or worse.
A power to control
That which surrounds us
- "Ruth Simmons". Brown University; visited February 2014 [This link has been removed by Brown University]
- “Dr. Ruth Simmons; former president of Brown University and Smith College to deliver 2015 LBJ School commencement address”. The University of Texas at Austin; visited August 2022
- Matthew Watkins. “Prairie View A&M President Ruth Simmons to step down”. Texas Tribune. March 12, 2022; visited August 2022
- “List of Presidents of Dartmouth College”. Wikipedia; visited August 2022
- “List of Presidents of the University of Pennsylvania”. Wikipedia; visited August 2022
- “List of Presidents of Princeton University”. Wikipedia; visited August 2022
- “List of Presidents of Yale University”. Wikipedia; visited August 2022
- “List of Presidents of Cornell University”. Wikipedia; visited August 2022
- “List of Presidents of Harvard University”. Wikipedia; visited August 2022
- “List of Presidents of Brown University”. Wikipedia; visited August 2022
- “List of Presidents of Columbia University”. Wikipedia; visited August 2022
- “Ivy League”. Wikipedia; visited August 2022
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