HomeAbout the Project

About the Project

The Origins of Celebrating Simms

This project began in the Spring of 2015 when JMU professor Mollie Godfrey began collaborating with Robin Lyttle, the founder of the Shenandoah Valley Black Heritage Project. Having done lots of work on the preservation of African American history for Mapping the Stacks at the University of Chicago and for the Maine NAACP at Bates College, Mollie was teaching a class at JMU on African American Literature and Historical Recovery. Robin invited Mollie’s class to help research and write biographies for local African American soldiers who fought for the Union in the Civil War, for publication in a book Robin was working on. Mollie and Robin began brainstorming other ways of getting JMU students involved in recovering local African American history and came up with the idea of doing a small, temporary exhibit on the topic of the Lucy F. Simms School. Dr. David Ehrenpreis saw the project’s potential as a co-taught interdisciplinary seminar at the Institute for Visual Studies, and connected Mollie with Seán McCarthy, who had extensive experience working on similar community engagement projects such as the Shenandoah Living Archive. From these beginnings, the Celebrating Simms project was born.

Use the left and right arrows above to learn more about the projects that brought Mollie, Seán, and Robin to Celebrating Simms. 

2015-2016: The Celebrating Simms Internship & Class

During the Fall of 2015, Mollie, Robin, and Seán worked with eight students who investigated the history of the school, the life of Lucy F. Simms, and the proud history of education among the African American community in Rockingham County.  This journey brought the team to people’s homes, “memory parties” at the Lucy F. Simms Continuing Education Center, and local libraries and archives. Students met with community members, learned how to handle and document precious archival materials, and began the work that would become the Celebrating Simms exhibition.

Seven of the eight students who worked on the project during the Fall were joined by nine others who signed up for the “Representing Black Harrisonburg” class convened in the Spring of 2016, which was co-taught by Mollie and Seán. The course was supported by David Ehrenpreis and Daniel Robinson of the Institute for Visual Studies (a former center in JMU's College of Visual and Performing Arts), who provided valuable resources, advice, encouragement, and a great interdisciplinary space to work in.

Robin Lyttle continued to work closely and inspire the students throughout Spring 2016. The combined efforts of the class were steered by a dedicated and enthusiastic Simms Advisory Board, led by local community activist Doris Harper Allen, who as a group helped craft the narrative and sourced photographs, provided quotes, read drafts, attended memory parties and meetings, and gave the students encouragement every step of the way. Many experts visited the class to give the students feedback and ideas, and JMU’s Center for Instructional Technology (now Learning Innovations and Design) and Digital Communication Consulting supported the class by providing their expertise with the many digital technologies that were used to build the project.

The Celebrating Simms exhibit and companion website officially launched on April 25, 2016. In its early stages, this project was supposed to be a temporary installation of no more than thirty panels of text and photographs. Over the course of the year, it grew to become fifty-nine panels on permanent display in the Lucy F. Simms Continuing Education Center in Harrisonburg, as well as a book, website, and another version of the exhibit on display at Harrisonburg High School. In hindsight, it’s not really all that surprising that the project grew from its humble beginnings. The story of the Lucy F. Simms School, the peerless educator that gave the school its name, and the story of African American education in Rockingham County represent a rich collective history that deserves and needs to be celebrated.

Use the left and right arrows above to learn more about the yearlong process that led to the creation and public launch of the original Celebrating Simms exhibit.

2016-2019: Refinement, Reflection, and Recognition

In preparation for the next grant-funded phase of the Celebrating Simms project, Mollie and Seán employed one summer graduate assistant and three undergraduate interns to complete necessary follow-up work on the companion website and to survey community partners on possible and desirable next steps for the project. Over the summer of 2016, graduate student Liana Bayne conducted a complete overhaul of the website, which included editing and uploading reaction videos from the exhibit’s launch, and embedding slideshows of photographs and the companion booklet on the website. In 2017, a private benefactor also offered to pay for the exhibit to be installed in all four of the county high schools, asking that the satellite exhibits be shortened to focus on the biography of Lucy F. Simms in order to link the exhibit to an annual educator’s award named in her honor. 

In the spring of 2018, Mollie and Seán advertised for undergraduate interns interested in working on the project in exchange for internship credit in JMU’s History Department. Starting in the fall of 2018, these students helped collect and transcribe surveys, interviews, and oral histories with community members and project partners about their experiences at the Simms school and about their interest in continuing and developing the Celebrating Simms project. Mollie and Seán also worked with Robin again to hold several community conversations with the project's many community partners. In the fall of 2019, Mollie and Seán began applying for external grant funding to bring these community-driven ideas into reality. 

Celebrating Simms received significant local and national attention during this time period. Mollie and Seán began to go to conferences and write peer-reviewed articles about the project (see Research and Resources for more information) and the project also received some significant awards. In 2017, Celebrating Simms won JMU’s Feminist Scholarship and Creative Work Award, and the same year also was the recipient of the inaugural Outstanding College-Community Project by a national organization called The Coalition for Community Writing. The judges deemed the project “exceptional,” with “significant outcomes and artifacts for students, community participants, and local schools and community.” Scholarship and awards are important validation for projects like Celebrating Simms, because local historical recovery initiatives not associated with urban centers or major research universities often struggle to find the support required to make them sustainable. The scholarship and awards generated during this period contributed at least in part to the project winning its first regional grant in 2019. Funded by Virginia Humanities, that grant supported extending the geographical and generational reach of Celebrating Simms, which shaped the project’s growth and activities for the next three years.

Use the left and right arrows above to learn more about the process of reflection and community dialogue that led to the next big phase of the Celebrating Simms project: Simms 2.0. 

2020-2022: Simms 2.0

The next phase of the Celebrating Simms project comprised four major components, all direct responses to requests from the project’s community partners: 

  • A permanent installation of the Celebrating Simms exhibit in the atrium of Harrisonburg High School.
  • The creation of a mobile version of the exhibit for use in local libraries and schools.
  • An extension of the original exhibit, permanently installed on the walls of the Simms Center.
  • Audio versions of the exhibit in English, Spanish, and Arabic to make the exhibit more accessible to Harrisonburg’s diverse community. 

With help from graphic designer David Hardy and graduate assistant Ember Heishman, Mollie and Seán installed and launched an updated redesign of the original Celebrating Simms exhibit in Harrisonburg High School on February 18, 2021. The opening event was attended by upwards of 130 people and was led by Mollie and Seán along with Harrisonburg Mayor Deanna Reed, HCPS Superintendent Michael Richards, and several Black teachers and staff members at Harrisonburg High School (HHS). 

The Celebrating Simms team also successfully redesigned and produced a mobile exhibit that has visited numerous local municipal libraries and schools in the region, including Rocktown History, formerly known as the Harrisonburg and Rockingham Historical Society; several branches of the Massanutten Regional Library  (Central, North River, and Village); Spotswood High School; Broadway High School, and Hillyard Middle School; Skyline Middle School and Thomas Harrison Middle School; the Virginia Mennonite Retirement Community (VMRC); and James Madison University’s Rose Library. By the end of the 2021-2022 year, The Harrisonburg High School and mobile exhibits combined reached over 14,000 regional library visitors, 6,000 high school students, 2,000 middle school students, thousands of James Madison University students, 400 retirement community members, family, and staff, and more.

In February 2022, the team collaboratively researched, wrote, designed, and launched an extension to the original Celebrating Simms exhibit in the Simms Center in Harrisonburg. Seven original panels dedicated to the life of Mary Awkard Fairfax are now available to visitors in the building’s conference room, which was formerly Mrs. Fairfax’s classroom. The panels detail her early life, her career as an educator, and her impact on the community. This extension builds on survey findings that call for “More pictures!” and to “expand to different local leaders, events, and stories.” The Fairfax extension to the Celebrating Simms exhibit is grounded in oral history testimony and images and documents from Mrs. Fairfax’s estate kindly made available to the project by her niece, Mary Ann Smith-Tucker. Thanks to the incredible work of graduate assistants Megan Medeiros and Justin Attas, over 500 new items have been digitized and tagged with metadata. 

Finally, translators Vanessa Rouillon and Sylvia Whitney Beitzel translated the original exhibit into Spanish, Israa Alhassani and Aram Shahin translated the exhibit into Arabic, and Syliva, Israa, and Deanna Reed made audiovisual recordings of the exhibit in Spanish, Arabic, and English for accessibility purposes. With support from graduate assistant Mariam Ismail, Kirsten Mlodynia made these recordings available on our website for visitors to stream via their mobile devices as they peruse the physical exhibits.

Use the left and right arrows above to learn more about the major outcomes of Simms 2.0.

Looking Forward

Thanks to the renewed interest generated by the Harrisonburg High School exhibit, Mollie and Seán are now working with school personnel Beau Dickenson, Owen Longacre, Jennifer Dean, and Tim Van Schaick, and faculty from JMU’s College of Education, Mary Beth Cancienne and Leonard Richards, to create new curricular materials and launch an oral history collection project that can be incorporated into the Celebrating Simms website to support local middle and high school History and English curricula while also contributing to the project's historical archive.

As mentioned above, the collaborative effort to create the new Mary Awkard Fairfax exhibit also resulted in the digital preservation of over 500 photographs and artifacts from Mrs. Fairfax's personal collection. With technical expertise from Kevin Hegg, these items have been added to the project's digital archive. Like all of the artifacts digitally preserved on this website, the original items have all been returned to their owner.

Mollie and Seán also continue to consult with local community members on ideas for future exhibits and are exploring the possibility of creating new exhibits honoring beloved Simms teachers such as W.N.P. Harris and Barbara Blakey, to be installed on the walls of their former offices and classrooms. 

About this website

This website is built using the Omeka platform, “a free, flexible, and open source web-publishing platform for the display of library, museum, archives, and scholarly collections and exhibitions.” Omeka allows us not just to publish copies of physical artifacts such as photographs and documents, but also to catalog all kinds of information about those documents. This makes it possible to properly acknowledge community members who allowed us to make digital copies of valuable family archival materials, and to make sure that these digital copies are easily found within the website. If you have any new information or corrections about the materials on display on this website, or have materials of your own that you would like to have scanned and included here, please contact us at celebratingsimms@gmail.com.