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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.


Fall 2015: The Celebrating Simms Internship

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 Center for Continuing Education, 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.


Spring 2016: The “Representing Black Harrisonburg” class

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, 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 advisory board who helped craft the narrative, source 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 and Digital Communication Consulting supported the class by providing their expertise with the many digital technologies that were used to build the project.


Exhibit Opening and Beyond

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 Center for Continuing Education 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 it’s name, and the story of African American education in Rockingham County represent a rich collective history that deserves and needs to be celebrated.



Many many thanks to Robin Lyttle, Doris Harper Allen, Sharon Barber, Reverend Harold L. Brown, Sr., Judith Carter Brown, Howard Curry, Wilhelmina Johnson, Deana Reed, and Betty Lou Winkey, among many other community members. Billo Harper was an invaluable friend to the project during the Spring semester. Billo provided photographs and video from his archive, and worked tirelessly with the team to provide accurate information for many of the hundred plus photographs that grace the exhibit panels and website. In addition to these collaborators, we had numerous experts visit our class, including History professors Mark Metzler Sawin (EMU), Steve Reich (JMU), Jacqueline Goldsby (Yale University), and local historian Dale MacAllister. Many thanks to David Ehrenpreis and Daniel Robinson at the IVS for providing the space, resources, and expertise to make the project possible. Many, many thanks to Stephanie Howard and her team for making the exhibition possible at the Lucy F. Simms Center for Continuing Education in Harrisonburg. Finally, the project would not have been possible without financial support from JMU’s IDEA grant, faculty senate mini-grant, the Office of Research and Scholarship, and Libraries & Educational Technologies.


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 artefacts 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 in 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.