MIAMI – An excited crowd of about 100 gathered on the campus of the University of Miami last week to learn about and celebrate the greatness of Robert H. Simms.
During a Feb. 28 presentation introducing The Bob Simms Collection: An Activist's Life and Legacy, members of the crowd were treated to information about the man and the city that has benefited from his contributions.
As part of the university’s Black History Month celebration, the school unveiled the collection during a standing-room-only ceremony attended by Simms’ family, friends and former colleagues.
Housed in the school’s Richter Library, the exhibit documents the life and activities of Simms, as well as his role in the black communities in Coconut Grove and other sections of Miami. It also reflects his work with the Defense Race Relations Institute and as the first executive director of Miami-Dade’s Community Relations Board (CRB).
Attaining the collection was no small feat.
Maria Estorino, the library’s deputy chair and chief operations manager of the Cuban Heritage Collection, said it took almost two years for the university to acquire Simms’ collection. In addition to private photographs of the Simms family (his wife, Aubrey, died in 2006), the collection includes vibrant pictures that captured the lives of blacks residing in Coconut Grove.
One photo features a smiling Dorothy Powell as a young majorette, mid-air, arm raised with her baton. Another shows a young Jacob Nelson as drum major striking what someone in the audience called a “strutting” pose – one knee raised high in marching format.
Historian Chanelle Rose, a faculty member at Florida Memorial University, presented Glory in the Grove, a lecture and Power Point presentation that took the audience on a trip down memory lane with a detailed exploration of the Bahamian influence on black Miami.
Larry Capp is the third executive director of the CRB; Simms was the first.
“He’s really a legend in this town. He’s done so much,” Capp said of Simms.
Simms, 80, told the South Florida Times during a telephone interview that the collection provides the library with “A DNA of Dade County’s social fabric.”
Simms’ adolescent hobby of photography provided a history of “Carver [middle school] rendered through photographs,” he said. “Every picture you saw is mine.’’
The collection includes historic family achievements, such as when daughter Leah was sworn in as the state’s first black judge, and documents as personal as the love letters Simms and his late wife wrote each other, including “the letter where I proposed and we subsequently married,” he said, his already chipper voice taking on a more upbeat tone.
“They have all of my family pictures all the way back to slavery, [including] Chappie James, the first black four-star general,” he said, adding that, “He and I married sisters.”
Most fascinating, Simms said, is the documentation of the Miami Inner City Minority Experience (MICME) – an experiential workshop Simms created in 1972 at the request of the Defense Race Relations Institute. The workshop complements the six-week classroom sessions established in response to increasing racial conflicts occurring at military installations around the world.
As head of the MICME, Simms put together a team of 40 people and “On Friday evening, probably six times a year at St. Johns Baptist church…200-225 people…were mine until Sunday afternoon at four,” the Miami Lakes resident said.
The teams, each including two staff people, were dispatched into Overtown, Liberty City, Wynwood and migrant camps in South Dade “to interact with people on a first-hand basis,” Simms recalled.
Each team included a psychologist “to help them to process the experience,” and a person who grew up in the community whose job it was to introduce the students to the people in their neighborhood. The program lasted five years, and was eventually used to train teachers and administrators.
Simms marvels at the content of the collection.
“I don’t know if they know what they have,” he said.
In addition to the library exhibit, the collection may be viewed online at http://scholar.library.miami.edu/bobsimms/.
Photo by Khary Bruyning. Robert H. Simms
IF YOU GO:
What: The Bob Simms Collection: An Activist's Life and Legacy
Where: Richter Library at University of Miami, 1300 Memorial Drive, Coral Gables
When: Through March 31