Whether in the courtroom, the boardroom, the school system or the White House, women of color continue to shatter the proverbial glass ceiling. Such is definitely the case with Brown University President, Ruth Simmons, the first African American female head of an ivy league University.
Raised in the segregated town of Grapeland, TX, Ruth Simmons was one of twelve children between her sharecropper father and a mother who did domestic work for a living. Although neither of her parents were formally educated, the life lessons and personal values they demonstrated on a daily basis would prove far more valuable to Ruth’s future. Lessons like attention to detail, doing your best work, being civil and respectful to others regardless of “their limitations – and their hostilities” were ingrained in Ruth just by observing her father and mother at work and experiencing the rich spiritual traditions of her family.
Growing up, the expectation of society in the south was that children of sharecroppers would join their families in the field, not attend school. Such was the case with Ruth until she reached elementary school age and her family moved to Houston to make a living. It was at this time that Ruth entered public school. Sure she experienced hatred, discrimination and low expectations on the part of society. But despite those realities, Ruth set her sites on the goal of being the first in her family to attend college. In 1967, with the help of teachers who sent her money and clothes, Ruth graduated summa cum laude from Dillard University and went on to receive her master’s and doctorate from Harvard University in Romance Literature. Shortly thereafter she became a professor of Romance languages and a dean at Princeton University from 1983 to 1990. Additionally, she served as provost at Spelman College from 1990 to 1992 and in 1995 was selected as president of Smith College.
Ruth’s accolades and accomplishments span the gambit. She is a celebrated essayist and sought after board member for some of the country’s most powerful corporations. Currently she serves as the 18th president of Brown University. Her story is truly that of the American dream. The irony that a woman raised in the segregated south by parents with no formal education would grow up to attend the most elite educational institutions and become the first African-American woman to head an ivy league school is a beautiful irony only possible in America.