Thank you for visiting this website, the online companion to the permanent exhibition that celebrates the life of pioneering African-American educator, Lucy F. Simms, and the school named in her honor in Harrisonburg, VA. The physical version of the exhibit, which opened in April 2016, lives on the walls of the main hall of the original school building, now the Lucy F. Simms Continuing Education Center. It is available for viewing on weekdays from 8-5pm. Thanks to the support of Virginia Humanities and a private donor, versions of the exhibit are available to view in Harrisonburg High School and every high school in Rockingham County. Virginia Humanities also supported a mobile version of the exhibit, which visited schools, public libraries, and other community centers throughout the region. Visit the branch exhibits page for more information.

Many people in the community have been working tirelessly for years to tell the story of Miss Simms and the school named in her honor. The Celebrating Simms project represents an ongoing collaboration between these people, the Harrisonburg and Rockingham County school systems, and James Madison University faculty and students, one that aims to honor and build on this prior work. Visit our about page to find out more about the origins and history of the project, and visit our people page to learn about the many collaborators who have made the project possible. 

The "Celebrating Simms" exhibit on permanent display at the Lucy F. Simms Continuing Education Center

Celebrating Simms at the Lucy F. Simms Continuing Education Center. Photo by JMU photographer, Mike Miriello. 

Born enslaved in 1856, Lucy F. Simms received her degree from Virginia’s Hampton Institute, and eventually settled in Harrisonburg to teach over 1,800 students from three generations of families. The Lucy F. Simms School was built soon after her death and served African-American students from all over Rockingham County and beyond between 1938 and 1965. The original exhibit, which spans 150 years of history, tells the story of the school in terms of its place at the heart of local community life. Visit our virtual version of the Celebrating Simms exhibit to view the complete exhibit and browse hundreds of photographs and documents used to craft the exhibit narrative. Visit our translations & audiovisual versions page to read or listen to the exhibit in either English or Spanish. 

In February 2022, an extension to the main exhibit opened to celebrate the life of educator and community leader Mary Awkard Fairfax. Taught by Miss Simms, Mrs. Fairfax went on to teach at the Lucy F. Simms School for twenty-five years and later at Waterman Elementary School after integration in 1965. The exhibit is available to view in Mrs. Fairfax’s original classroom, which is now the conference room of the Lucy F. Simms Continuing Education Center in Harrisonburg. You can find out more, explore a virtual version of the exhibit, and browse the archival materials and oral histories that were used to create it on our Mary Awkard Fairfax exhibit page.

Celebrating the Life and Legacy of Mary Awkard Fairfax in the Simms Center conference room. Photo courtesy of Justin Attas.

This website contains a variety of additional materials that relate to the physical exhibits for you to enjoy: an interactive timeline that situates the development of African-American education in Harrisonburg in the context of national events; an interactive map that situates key locations that are important to this story; a digital archive of hundreds of photographs and other historical artifacts; oral histories with former Simms students and teachers; and educational resources that can be used by K-12 teachers to incorporate these materials into the classroom. Also included on the website are video clips of interviews with teachers and students who attended the school, courtesy of Billo Harper’s documentary, The Legacy of Lucy F. Simms School: Education During Segregated Times in Virginia (2005).

The materials available on this website represent the most comprehensive gathering of documents relating to Lucy F. Simms and the history of the school currently available. The website is built on the Omeka platform, which enables visitors to browse and search the entire contents of the exhibit, as well as a growing number of other photographs and documents relating to the school and the history of education among the Black community in Harrisonburg. It is intended to be used as an educational and historical resource for teachers, researchers, and community members.

In the above video, prepared to open the exhibit at Harrisonburg High School, Harrisonburg Mayor Deanna Reed and several Celebrating Simms collaborators discuss the importance of the Lucy F. Simms school to understanding the history of Harrisonburg and the surrounding region.