Recently Mark and I had the pleasure of attending a book presentation in Houston’s Fifth Ward at the Julia C. Hester House, which was founded in 1943 by Mark’s father, William Ryan. As Ruth Simmons presented her newly released book Up Home: One Girl’s Journey, I was struck by how many Dharma values she has embodied in her life.
Ruth grew up the 12th child in an impoverished family of Black sharecroppers in cotton fields, near Grapeland and the tiny rural community of Daly in East Texas. Her first home had no running water, no indoor toilet, no electricity, no insulation, and no books to read. The family’s transportation was a horse-drawn wooden wagon. Yet in her 78 years, Ruth Simmons has become one of America’s foremost educators. After serving as president of Smith College, she was selected as the first Black president of an Ivy League college—Brown University. Just last year, she stepped down from the presidency of Prairie View A & M, the oldest Black college in Texas.
I was impressed not only by Ruth’s myriad accomplishments, but also by her attitude of humbleness and her gratitude towards family and teachers who have guided her. In her book, she describes how her mother, Emma, the granddaughter of slaves, worked hard to put food on the table for her twelve children. Emma herself dressed like a slave in long dresses made of bleached cotton canvas with an African headdress of similar fabric. She wore plain white cotton dresses during the week and striped cotton dresses for attending church on Sundays.
Ruth’s mother modeled kindness, generosity, patience, forgiveness, and service to others. Without any complaint, she rose at 4:00am to cook, clean, iron, and work in the fields. She braided her hair quickly and cared little for her appearance. She tried her best to avoid vanity and what she called “ungodly behavior.”
Without the luxury of a sewing machine, Emma made numerous quilts to keep the family warm in cold winter months. She cut cloth from flour sacks, old clothing, and fabric remains into squares and triangles. Matching the pieces and hand-stitching them together, she would patiently assemble a covering large enough to cover a bed. Then Emma would attach cotton batting to the back and add a lining. Spreading the lined and stuffed patchwork across two wooden carpentry horses, she would stitch the layers to one another.
Deeply religious and devout about following the Bible’s teachings, Emma saw her life as having a special purpose. For her it was crucial to teach her children right values—decency, common sense, generosity, and faith in God’s beneficence.
On Sundays, all dozen children were expected to wash their feet before attending Greater New Hope Church in Daly. Typical church services were long. Sunday school began at 9:00am followed by an 11:00 service and a picnic afterwards with members of the extended family. Resurrection and rebirth imagery prevailed at the church, representing the hope of Black farming families that there would someday be relief from the trials of segregation and hard physical labor that only enriched white owners of sharecropping farms.
The children had to memorize and recite biblical passages both in church and at home. At the end of blessings before meals, each child would have to utter a brief Biblical verse. Ruth loved to listen to her mother sing her favorite hymn:
Jesus, keep me near the Cross,
There a precious fountain,
Free to all—a healing stream—
Flows from Calvary’s mountain.
In the cross, in the cross,
Be my glory ever,
Till my raptured soul shall find
Rest beyond the river.
Ruth’s father Isaac came from a poor background. His dad Wes died young and when his mother remarried, her new husband kicked out Wes’s five children to fend for themselves. The abandoned children lived a homeless life, scrounging for work and food to survive. Once Isaac was so hungry that he retrieved a maggot-infested raccoon carcass for a meal. With only an eighth-grade education, he read haltingly. But his lack of formal classes did not prevent him from studying the Bible and preparing himself to become a Methodist minister.
When he became a father of twelve, Isaac insisted that, starting at the age of six, each of his children labored long hours in scorching heat, pushing a plow to prepare hard ground for planting, hoeing, and picking cotton. Without money for shoes, the children worked barefoot and attended school only sporadically. The older children all dropped out of high school before graduating.
Somehow Isaac’s religiosity and strict discipline towards his children did not prevent him from beating his wife or from philandering with other women. If a child disobeyed him, Isaac would make the offender cut a cat-tail, which he used as a whip. During their 37 years of marriage, Emma waited on her husband slavishly and forbade their children from saying anything negative about him. Ruth recalls, “Racism had reduced my father to a shadow of the man he could have been, and he turned the demeaning arrogance that had victimized him on my mother, making her subservient to him in every way.”
When Ruth was of school age, she benefited from new Texas laws that mandated education for children through high school. She started off at W.R. Banks School in Grapeland and impressed her teachers right away with her intellectual curiosity and intelligence. She had a dedicated, gifted teacher, Miss Ida Mae Henderson, who spotted her potential. This was the first time that Ruth felt her personal importance, with ownership of a space designated for her use alone. She loved having her own desk, chair, books, papers, and pencils. With Ida Mae’s enthusiastic support, Ruth plunged into developing her mind.
After coming from a family in which girls were implicitly less important, Ruth was accustomed to her brothers receiving most of the attention. Her mother was an old-fashioned wife, who took orders from her husband and never dared to have any independent ambition outside the kitchen. Ida Mae made Ruth aware that there were women who had jobs, responsibilities, and professions. At the age of 6, Ruth’s world opened beyond her clan, community, and race. She was encouraged, in her own words “to take a more generous stance towards the world.” Later on, other kind teachers went out of their way to help her obtain scholarships and to flourish in the world of academics.
Ruth ends her book with an eloquent Epilogue:
Student often ask me how I came through the difficult periods of my life without looking back in anger. I am always startled by this question. Any life is, after all, the sum of a variety of contingencies leavened by whatever order and understanding that we…bring to them. I do not regard the circumstances of my childhood as more difficult or more glorious than another’s. What ultimately matters in any life is whether, at every point, we are sufficiently attentive to what has been lost and gained, and whether that knowledge usefully informs us about how to live out the rest of our lives…. [I was forced] to confront the reality that one path foreclosed is an invitation to consider other opportunities that could be equally, and, possibly even more satisfying and beneficial. I was able to move one, always hopeful about what I might learn and how I might grow. And so, I answer the students’ questions by saying that I have lived my life by trying to learn as much as possible from everything, good and bad, placed on my path. Every loss. Every gain. Every hurt. Every triumph.
Without the extraordinary people I have encountered in every decade of my life, I could not have been as well prepared to understand how to travel the road from Grapeland to the heights of American higher education. Through them—the gifted teachers, my family, and many others, who mentored or chided me—I could not have fully benefited from the many opportunities I have encountered…. Had it not been for the exhilaration I felt about school, I might never have thought my life could forever be filled with wondrous adventures and satisfying accomplishments…. I am not the person I was supposed to be. Rather, I am the person that I dreamed of becoming.
What most impresses me about Ruth Simmons is her non-attachment to self, to status, and to possessions. Although she is not a practicing Buddhist, she is mindful of her inner and outer processes. Carrying on her mother’s values of kindness, gratitude, and fairness, Ruth is singularly free from suffering.