A champion can be someone who competes and wins a contest or competition. Champions usually defend, support or promote human rights. Rarely does one person have the ability to do it all. Robert “Bob” Simms, who was born in 1927 and died in 2014, had such a gift. As a result, his legacy is preserved in the memories of family, friends and many whose lives he touched as a teacher, photographer, executive director and social engineer/problem solver/influencer.
Relocating from Tuskegee, Alabama, to Miami in 1953, Simms joined the faculty at George Washington Carver School, formerly known as the Dade County Training School in Coconut Grove. The principal, Frances S. Tucker, also from Tuskegee, hired him as chairman of the physical education department. Tucker had been a student of famed teacher-scientist-inventor George Washington Carver at Tuskegee Institute, a Historically Black University (HBCU).
In 1929 Tucker became principal of the Dade County Training School. It was built on land donated a few years earlier by Coral Gables developer George Merrick. At the time, black and white races were segregated by custom and laws, known as Jim Crow. The training school was available only to black students in elementary and junior high school grades. Most came from the south end of Dade County. Carver became a senior high school in 1934 and was renamed in 1942 to honor George Washington Carver, the nationally acclaimed scientist with more than 100 inventions. (Today, George Washington Carver Middle School is a magnet school in international education with a diverse student body, faculty and staff.)
With a sense of history, Simms documented the school’s activities during his tenure, 1953-1965. He took pictures of the students, athletics, school and civic activities showing evidence of life at a racially segregated school in a racially segregated society. The photographs are a visual documentation of the rich traditions, successes and glories despite legal limitations and inferior conditions.
Simms’ influence on some of his students was profound. Theodore “Tedd” Johnson, a 1964 Carver graduate, thoughtfully recalled in a recent interview: “Bob Simms used sports and games as a vehicle to teach students about life. He was one of the most influential persons in my life — and in the lives of many of the students he taught.’’
The youth group Simms started was comprised of students from black South Florida senior high schools: Carver in Coconut Grove, North Dade in Opa-locka, and Booker T. Washington in Overtown. Although we were from different schools (and communities), he helped us bond and find common ground that brought us together. Since graduation I continue to be in touch with two of my classmates: Thomas Garvin, who became a medical doctor, and Roland Daniels, who became president and general manager of his own Chevrolet-Oldsmobile dealership in Castle Rock, Colorado. (Later Daniels served as a University of Florida Trustee, 2001-2013).
Bob Simms was Johnson’s favorite teacher and encouraged him to follow his passion and skills as a graphic artist. Simms tried to protect his students from harm, spoke on their behalf and supported them. For example, when Tedd Johnson started his own graphic design business, Simms introduced Johnson’s talent to several business contacts. Johnson eventually became the graphic designer in the Education Department at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden.
From 1968-1983, Simms was the executive director of the Metro Dade County Community Relations Board (CRB). An organization created in 1963 to mediate ethnic conflicts, the Board’s goal was to develop mutual understanding, tolerance, and respect among all economic, social, religious and ethnic groups.
In 1988, Simms brought groups together through his company, Bob Simms Associates. He came up with the slogan, “Mi-Ami is Our-Ami.”
Simms served as a contractor with the U.S. Department of Defense Race Relations Institute at Patrick Air Force Base in Brevard County. Additionally, his three-day program, “The Miami Inner City Minority Experience,” explored the values, culture, strengths and mores of Miami-Dade County’s diverse population.
His clients included: Knight Ridder Institute of Training, USA Today, Newsday, The American Newspaper Publishers Association, The American Society of Newspapers Editors, The Detroit Free Press, The Detroit News, The Charlotte Observer, Press-Telegram (Long Beach, California), Dade County Public Schools, Metro Dade County, and Williamson Cadillac.
Utilizing his skills as a social engineer, Simms created several community impact programs, including The Inner City Marine Project (it later evolved into the M.A.S.T. Academy); Partners For Youth; The Miami Chapter, National Junior Tennis League Network Inc.; and the West Coconut Grove Youth Development Program.
For nearly a decade Simms considered ways to tell his story of struggle, community challenges, and the hope of 20th century black Miami. He made the decision to donate all his materials to the University of Miami. His late wife, Aubrey Watkins Simms, had worked in the office of two University of Miami presidents, Henry King Stanford, and Edward “Tad” Foote II. Simms was an emeritus member of UM’s Board of Trustees.
Working with UM’s archival coordinator Beatrice Skokan and staff, Simms organized his negatives, photographs and other materials. In addition to Carver, CRB and his business subjects, the collection includes material on the Small Business Development Center, The Church of the Open Door, and a pictorial family history from 1847, the era of slavery. There are also numerous images of the family in Miami with the Simms’ children: David Michael Simms, a medical doctor, and daughter Leah A. Simms, the first black woman judge in the history of Florida. She was appointed by Gov. Bob Graham in 1981, elected to the post in 1982 and served until 1986.
Yolanda L. Cooper, then UM’s deputy librarian and currently the university librarian at Emory University, provided this statement:
“By giving his collection to the University of Miami Libraries, future generations now have access to materials outlining black family life and community and race relations of historical significance. Available to the public it documents the black experience in Miami. ... The Robert “Bob” Simms Collection records, for current and future generations, play an important part of the history of the 20th century urban south.
Dorothy Jenkins Fields, PhD, is a historian and founder of the Black Archives, History and Research Foundation of South Florida Inc. Send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.