In addition to providing services to the elderly, We Are Family helps volunteers tap in to the history of African-American communities in Washington, D.C. Through casual visits as well as oral history projects, volunteers sometimes are able to uncover accounts of major events in U.S. history.
We Are Family volunteers have given Belva Simmons, 78, who lives in D.C.’s North Capitol neighborhood, a chance to tell the story of her career as a congressional staff person and her role in passing the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
“I came here from St. Louis to pass the civil rights bill, to work with my senator, Sen. Thomas C. Hennings Jr., who was the chair of the constitutional rights subcommittee,” she said. Several senators changed the name of the subcommittee—which was under the judiciary committee—from civil rights to constitutional rights, Simmons said, to try to reduce attention from groups like the Ku Klux Klan. She began work as a Senate staff member in July 1955, and stayed for more than 10 years.
Simmons remembers many late nights researching and negotiating provisions of the legislation. She recalls phone calls from the offices of Presidents John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, and from FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover. “John F. Kennedy had me on everything under the sun,” she said. “Then Lyndon Baines Johnson became president, and one of the first things he did was pass the civil rights bill. July 2, 1964—that’s also my birthday, July 2.” The Civil Rights Act ended legal segregation, stating that people of all races, religions, genders, and nationalities should enjoy the same rights to use public facilities, gain employment, and vote.
Sitting in her modest apartment blocks away from the U.S. Capitol, Simmons said in a matter-of-fact way, “I’ve made great changes.”
Global justice activist Basav Sen, 40, and his wife Catherine Benedict have visited Simmons several times after meeting her through We Are Family. Sen said, “It was both inspiring and delightful to hear from someone who had been in the thick of movements for social change decades ago—before I was born.”
Celeste Kennel-Shank is editorial projects assistant at Sojourners.