Many in the Harrisonburg community had wondered why one of the most influential educators, Lucy Francis Simms, did not set her ambitions to profit from her skill as a teacher in the late 1800s. Perhaps, the footprints she left after her death in 1934 attest to her selfless devotion to educating children even in segregated schools.
Her funeral was flooded with a huge crowd never seen before in the history of African Americans who had passed away in Harrisonburg. She gave her all in a way that her former students, fellow educators and the community believed that paying their last respect was the least they could offer her.
One of the local dailies reported how her former students and pupils of Effinger Street School lined the driveway of the school to the burial grounds. The National Register of Historic Places in 2015 captured the Newton Cemetery where she was buried in their database, according to James Madison University.
The above should not surprise anyone who has followed the service of Simms. In her five-decade contributions to the education sector, she taught at least 1,800 students when she returned to Rockingham County.
She dedicated 56 years of her career to teaching at three schools, beginning at Athens Colored School in 1877. She later moved to Harrisonburg where she schooled the children in the basement of the Harrisonburg Catholic Church.
Despite an occasional hazard she encountered with the janitor who drove out her students in preparation for Sunday services, Simms was full of energy and passion when teaching her pupils. When the students outgrew the basement, Effinger Street School was constructed. Simms with the assistance of her half-brother, Ulysses Grant Wilson, taught for the last 52 years of her life.
She was not only a tutor at Effinger but was also a mother to the pupils. She treated her students with kindness and respect while demanding excellence from them. She also helped prepare the children for class because many of their parents were working couples. In return for this favor, many of her students brought her flowers to decorate her desk.
Historians say Simms’ humble beginnings may have inspired her ambitions. She was born into slavery in 1856 to the Gray family. Details of where she was born were initially sketchy. Some records claimed she was born in Harrisonburg, either at the Collicello estate or at Hilltop Plantation, both owned by Algernon Gray.
New evidence however indicates that she may have been born in Roanoke when the Gray family temporarily moved to an estate belonging to them further south. She enrolled at the Hampton Institute in Virginia in 1874. The school was established with the goal of educating former slaves to lead their people — a goal Simms judiciously lived up to after she graduated in 1877.
Where she lived still stands today at 231 East Johnson St. School authorities at Effinger Street School have named the school in her memory after they replaced it in 1938.