A review of Celebrating Simms, a permanent physical and digital exhibit honoring the legacy of Black educator Lucy Simms, directed by Mollie Godfrey and Seán McCarthy
Brian J. Daugherity, Virginia Commonwealth University
Mollie Godfrey and Seán McCarthy
Lucy F. Simms was born with enslaved status in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley in 1856. After graduating from the Hampton Institute in 1877, she returned to the Valley to teach 1800 Black students across three generations until her death in 1934. The Lucy F. Simms School was built soon after, serving Black students from all over the Valley until its closure in 1966. Celebrating Simms is a multiyear community-university partnership that began in 2015 to tell and preserve the story of Lucy F. Simms, the school named in her honor, and the community members whose lives were transformed by the school.
The project exists in two modalities: physical exhibits and a website. Unveiled in 2016, the physical exhibit originally comprised a 60-panel permanent exhibit on the walls of the former school. In 2022 it expanded to celebrate another Simms teacher. With support from a private donor and a $10,000 Virginia Humanities grant, versions of the 2016 exhibit have been placed in six surrounding high schools and a mobile exhibit has toured public institutions throughout the state.
The website, redesigned in 2021, is published on the Omeka platform. It houses digital versions of the exhibits and a post-custodial archive of digitized photographs used to create those exhibits. The website contains additional resources such as an interactive timeline and map; transcribed oral histories (more of which are coming soon, thanks to the collaboration of former Simms students and local high school teachers); clips from related documentaries; audio versions of the exhibits in English, Spanish, and Arabic; and curricular materials for K–12 teachers.
Project data management is based on ethics of shared authority, collaborative practice, and reciprocity. All artifacts are returned to their owners after digitization. Rigorous metadata tagging ensures accurate and transparent provenance and usage rights of every item, and, under the leadership of Dean Bethany Nowviskie, JMU Libraries’ staff and resources are committed to ensuring that the project’s digital presence is cared for and sustained.
Celebrating Simms is led by two faculty at James Madison University, one of whom has expertise in archives and African American studies, and the other in digital literacies and community engagement. A large advisory board of former Simms students and neighborhood residents have volunteered their expertise for seven years, and value having an active role in determining the direction, design, and growth of the project. They are joined by local volunteer professionals in multiple disciplines, and a large team of undergraduate and graduate students who have participated in the project for internship, course, or assistantship credit or pay.
Together, our physical exhibits have reached at least 50,000 regional visitors, and our companion website, aimed at community members, researchers, and students, has reached 6,500 users in Virginia, and hundreds more nationwide. The project directors have published about Celebrating Simms in Public: A Journal of Imagining America (2018) and a/b: Auto/Biography Studies (2022), and the project has received substantial local news coverage. The project was awarded the Outstanding College-Community Project Award from the Coalition for Community Writing in 2017.
Brian J. Daugherity
Celebrating Simms: The Story of the Lucy F. Simms School is an important and innovative digital humanities project based in the city of Harrisonburg, Virginia, and the surrounding area. Dedicated to the life of pioneering African American educator, Lucy F. Simms, the school named in her honor in Harrisonburg, and the community members whose lives were transformed by the school, the project began in 2015 and continues to the present day.
Lucy Frances Simms was born into slavery in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley just prior to the Civil War. After graduating from the Hampton Institute in 1877, she returned to the Valley to teach. In addition to teaching, Simms served as president of the local Colored Teachers Association. She passed away in 1934. The Lucy F. Simms School was built soon after and was the only school for African Americans living in Rockingham County. Black students from all over the Valley attended the Simms School until its closure in 1966.
Celebrating Simms exists as a permanent 60-panel physical exhibit in the former Lucy F. Simms School, and as abbreviated physical exhibits in six public schools in Harrisonburg. The project team has also created a traveling exhibit that has toured the state of Virginia. A project website houses digital versions of the exhibits, an archive of digitized photographs, and additional resources such as an interactive timeline and map. The website also includes a transcribed oral history interview, clips from related documentary films, and audio versions of the exhibits. Finally, the website includes a variety of curricular materials for K–12 teachers to utilize in their own classrooms. One challenge with maintaining a long-term project website is that digital materials are sometimes relocated or removed from the web. Currently, the Celebrating Simms website includes some broken links and missing content. In the future, it will be helpful for the project team to periodically review each link on its website to ensure their accuracy.
The project is the product of a wide-reaching and ongoing collaborative effort. The team includes faculty, staff, and students at James Madison University and an advisory board containing former Simms students and neighborhood residents. Its work is guided by core principles including collaborative practice and design justice, as well as ethical data management practices such as shared authority and reciprocity. Documentation of the project highlights the importance of community input, and this input has clearly shaped the direction of the work. This collaborative approach has resulted in more traditional outcomes such as academic presentations and publications, as well as community-centered events and programming. The project directors deserve praise for adopting and following such an approach.
Celebrating Simms contributes substantially to the digital scholarship, and general understanding, of African American life, history, and culture in the Shenandoah Valley (particularly the city of Harrisonburg), during the Reconstruction and Jim Crow eras. In so doing, it helps to fill gaps in our historical understanding of Virginia’s past. The project also provides substantial assistance to schoolteachers who seek to teach such content in the classroom, including lesson plans and primary resources. Reflecting these achievements, the project has successfully obtained grant and private funding for its work and has received a variety of awards. It seems likely that such accolades will continue in the future.