College senior, 70, wins research grant

She is studying history of black education in Howard County

October 09, 2002|By Donna W. Payne | Donna W. Payne,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

When Audrey Simmons was considering whether to pursue a degree, it was not a parent who encouraged her to continue her education. It was her granddaughter.

"I know you can do this, Grandma," she says her granddaughter told her.

Simmons will celebrate her 71st birthday next week and expects to receive her undergraduate degree from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County next fall. And her award-winning college project, she hopes, will benefit adults and children who want to learn more about Howard County's past.

To some, Simmons' achievement represents the opportunities open to, and the contributions made by, senior citizens in Howard County.

Simmons received one of 27 undergraduate research awards from UMBC, in the face of what her faculty mentor, Ann Christine Frankowski, called "stiff competition." The $1,500 grant partially funds Simmons' research into the history of African-American education in Howard and her design of exhibits for the recently restored Ellicott City Colored School.

The schoolhouse, which dates from the early 1880s, was the first school that the county funded for African-Americans. In her grant application, Simmons called this "separate and unequal" facility "a history lesson that ... should have been told years ago."

The Friends of the Ellicott City Colored School Restoration Inc., of which Simmons is a member, has worked for many years with the county Department of Recreation and Parks to restore the tiny schoolhouse and to develop it as a museum and preservation site. The county, which owns the building and land, financed the complicated $1.5 million restoration.

John Byrd, chief of the parks bureau, said the county will be "creating an operating agreement" with the Friends group, which will operate programs at the site.

"We want to make it a center for genealogical research as well as a place for adults and children, students and teachers to come and learn about the history of that school," Simmons said.

The facility was dedicated Sept. 28. Pedestrian and vehicle bridges to the site are under construction, so the building won't be open to the public until spring, county officials said.

Meanwhile, Simmons is gathering oral histories and collecting information from old census records, letters, diaries, yearbooks and photos.

"I think she has an amazing sense to be able to synthesize and to pick up - from several different disciplines - ideas and put them all together," Frankowski said.

With financial support from the Friends of the Colored School and help from an architect, Simmons has built a scale model of the school building that shows locations for proposed wall exhibits and movable display modules.

"[Simmons] will contribute primarily with the exhibits and artwork and where things will go inside the building," said Sylvia Cooke Martin, president and project manager for the Friends group and a longtime advocate for the historic site.

Simmons, Martin and others plan to use the school to showcase African-American genealogies and local family histories, the restoration process, historic schoolhouses in Maryland and other exhibits on African-American history. They have collected vintage desks, books, slate boards, toys and games to put on display.

Simmons lives in Ellicott City with her husband, Hubert "Bert" Simmons, who was a Negro League baseball player from 1941 to 1952. He pitched for the Baltimore Elite Giants in 1950.

"My husband and I are doing everything we can to grow old gracefully," Simmons said. "We're having a ball."

Simmons worked for 35 years in government service before retiring in 1986. She started as a "lowly file clerk" and worked her way up to deputy director of civil rights for the Urban Mass Transportation Administration in Washington.

But, she said, she took courses, especially in art, throughout her work career. UMBC gave her credits toward her major for her past coursework and experiences. ("I think they felt I wasn't going to flunk," she said). As an interdisciplinary studies major at UMBC, she was able to design her own course of study - museum exhibition, administration and design.

"I would like other people to ... kind of feel like it's not all over yet," Simmons said, "that there are lots and lots of interesting things out here to do. And that once you get involved, one thing leads to another and you find yourself rather activated."

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