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Legacies Project Oral History: Opal Simmons

Thu, 01/16/2020 - 9:14am

When: 2020

Opal Simmons was born in 1931 in Detroit. After graduating from Eastern High School, she attended Fisk University and Wayne State University. She lived in New York for a few years as a young woman and recalls attending dances at the Savoy. She volunteered as a letter reader for the American Red Cross during World War II. During her working years in Detroit, she was secretary to the deputy mayor in the Coleman A. Young administration. Richard Simmons Jr. became her second husband. Later in life, she attended seminary and became a minister.

Opal Simmons was interviewed by students from Skyline High School in Ann Arbor in 2010 as part of the Legacies Project.

Transcript

  • [00:00:09.21] SPEAKER: Look, please keep your answers brief and to the point right now.
  • [00:00:12.92] OPAL SIMMONS: OK.
  • [00:00:13.71] SPEAKER: We can go into more details later in the interview. Can you please say your name and spell it for me, please?
  • [00:00:19.42] OPAL SIMMONS: All right. My name is Opal M. Simmons-- Opal O-P-A-L, Middle initial M, and the last name Simmons S-I-M-M-O-N-S.
  • [00:00:32.91] SPEAKER: What is your birthday, including the year?
  • [00:00:35.15] OPAL SIMMONS: August the 29th, 1931.
  • [00:00:39.43] SPEAKER: How would you describe your ethnic background?
  • [00:00:42.53] OPAL SIMMONS: African-American.
  • [00:00:45.40] SPEAKER: How would you describe-- wait. What is your religion, if any?
  • [00:00:50.07] OPAL SIMMONS: Yes, I'm a Christian. I belong to Fellowship Chapel United Church of Christ. And I'm a minister.
  • [00:00:58.23] SPEAKER: What is the highest level of formal education?
  • [00:01:02.18] OPAL SIMMONS: A master's degree in religion. I went to seminary after completing my bachelor's.
  • [00:01:10.49] SPEAKER: Did you attend any business school or formal training behind that?
  • [00:01:15.81] OPAL SIMMONS: No, not after seminary.
  • [00:01:20.36] SPEAKER: What is your martial status?
  • [00:01:22.74] OPAL SIMMONS: I'm a widow.
  • [00:01:26.54] SPEAKER: How many children do you have?
  • [00:01:28.74] OPAL SIMMONS: I have one daughter.
  • [00:01:31.31] SPEAKER: How many siblings do you have?
  • [00:01:33.09] OPAL SIMMONS: None.
  • [00:01:35.72] SPEAKER: What was your primary occupation?
  • [00:01:39.73] OPAL SIMMONS: Well, before I became a minister, I was a secretary in the Coleman Young Administration for the city of Detroit.
  • [00:01:50.11] SPEAKER: At what age did you retire?
  • [00:01:53.77] OPAL SIMMONS: I was 70-- about 74.
  • [00:02:02.16] SPEAKER: Now, we can begin the first part of our interview, beginning with some of the things you can recall about your family history. We will start with family name and history. By this, we mean any story about your last or family name or family traditions and choosing first and middle name. Do you know any stories about your family?
  • [00:02:23.16] OPAL SIMMONS: No, I do not.
  • [00:02:25.55] SPEAKER: Are there any name and traditions in your family? Family?
  • [00:02:28.34] OPAL SIMMONS: Any names of traditions?
  • [00:02:30.14] SPEAKER: And traditions?
  • [00:02:32.84] OPAL SIMMONS: No, not that I could recall.
  • [00:02:36.58] SPEAKER: Why did your ancestors leave to come to the United States?
  • [00:02:43.06] OPAL SIMMONS: Well, because of slavery years ago, but I don't know too much about that part up of my ancestors, but I do know that I was fortunate enough to know my great grandmother and my grandmother, my mother, and I had a stepfather. So I don't know much about my natural father's background. Although, I know he was from the south, but I don't know just where. So most of my answers will be on my mother's side.
  • [00:03:18.55] SPEAKER: How did they make a living either in the old country or in the United States?
  • [00:03:25.30] OPAL SIMMONS: My mother worked-- she did day work. That's what they called it. Mess, which is housework. And she had finished high school. She was born in the city of Detroit.
  • [00:03:35.36] She finished high school, but at that time, she wasn't able to get anything other than day work, because of being an African-American, which we called at that time Negro. She wasn't unable to get a better job than that with her education. And she kept trying and taking exams, until she finally at the age of 70-- at the age of 60 rather she was able to go work for the federal government. And she worked there and retired at the age of 75.
  • [00:04:12.19] SPEAKER: What belongings did they bring with them, and why?
  • [00:04:19.39] OPAL SIMMONS: What belongings did my mother bring?
  • [00:04:22.79] SPEAKER: As in family migration?
  • [00:04:26.66] OPAL SIMMONS: And so that part of it, I really don't know too much about, what they would have brought with them, because for me, where my history started was in the United States, that I am aware of. I know that we were from Africa, but what I would be able to answer would be my grandmother was born in Bay City. Her mother was born in Canada, which tells me, and she had told me, because they went to Canada, because it was safer and freer to be in Canada, and then they came back to Michigan. And so my roots that I am able to speak on firsthand about it would be from Canada, from Detroit, Bay City, Detroit. And from then on it's, been all in Detroit.
  • [00:05:16.83] SPEAKER: To your knowledge, did they try to receive any traditions or custom from their country of origin?
  • [00:05:26.43] OPAL SIMMONS: Yes. And that was to hold your head up high and have dignity, because you were someone, to strive to be better in anything that you did and to get an education as much as you can. That was drummed into you daily.
  • [00:05:47.13] SPEAKER: Are there any tradition that family had giving up or changed?
  • [00:05:53.30] OPAL SIMMONS: Not that I'm aware of.
  • [00:06:17.76] SPEAKER: That completes the section of questions about you family history. Thank you.
  • [00:06:22.76] OPAL SIMMONS: You're welcome.
  • [00:06:29.08] SPEAKER: This part of the interview is about your childhood, up until you began attending school. Even if these questions jog memories about other times in life, please respond with memories from the earliest part of your life. Where did you grow up? And what was the strongest memory of that place?
  • [00:06:47.66] OPAL SIMMONS: I grew up in the city of Detroit. As a very young child I can remember my father, which was my stepfather, working in the factory here. And when my mother would fix his lunch and he would go off to work and he would come home, he was always still have a sandwich in his lunchbox for me. And I just look forward to that.
  • [00:07:14.00] And one day he came home and he worked so hard in the factory. And he worked in the foundry. And he came home that day and he said, I'm sorry, sweetheart, but daddy ate the sandwich. He was hungry today.
  • [00:07:26.36] And I said, oh, daddy, no, you didn't. I know you didn't. And he said, oh, I did. And he said, I'll have to get you something later. And I just didn't believe him, because he'd never did that.
  • [00:07:36.75] So he opened the box. I opened the box. There was no sandwich in there. And I just cried and cried. How could he eat the sandwich? And I remember that.
  • [00:07:46.91] And I remember he felt so badly. He took me out to the store and bought me some ice cream. But he said he did it because he was just so hungry that day and tired.
  • [00:07:57.65] SPEAKER: How did your family come to live here?
  • [00:08:01.50] OPAL SIMMONS: My mother came to live here, because of her mother and her mother's mother. So it goes back, as I said, as far as I can remember Detroit-- well, first, Bay City from my great grandmother. My grandmother lived in Detroit and my mother. So Detroit has been our home.
  • [00:08:20.94] SPEAKER: What was you house like?
  • [00:08:25.77] OPAL SIMMONS: Always busy. And anytime someone needed something, they always came to our house. We always had room for one more.
  • [00:08:36.99] I can remember I had my own bedroom and yet, I had to always give up my bedroom, because somebody was always coming here from some other place or needed some help. And I remember I would say, well, when I grow up, I'm not giving up my bedroom for anybody. And I found when I grew up, I was doing the same thing that I had learned from a child.
  • [00:09:01.27] SPEAKER: How many people lived in the house with you, when you were growing up? And what was their relationships to you?
  • [00:09:08.52] OPAL SIMMONS: Well, when I was about 11, it was my father, my mother, and then a young man came to live with us. And he came to live with us, because he had lived in Montgomery, Alabama. He graduated from high school at 18. And he came to Detroit to live.
  • [00:09:28.93] And he was supposed to have gone to the Y, Young Men's Christian Y for a room. And when he got off the train, it was in the Union Station we called at that time, which was the train station here in Detroit.
  • [00:09:43.32] And he got there. And he made a telephone call. And he didn't have a room. He had no place to stay. And the man who was standing in the station was a roomer of ours.
  • [00:09:56.34] We've always had roomers. And this roomers of ours, he lived in, what we called at that time, the valley. He was a gambler. And he lived there, but he had this room at our house.
  • [00:10:08.71] And so after he would be away for about a month or so, he would get tired of the valley and gambling. And he would come back to our house and stay. And so he kept that room.
  • [00:10:17.31] So he was in the train station the day that this young man came. And he heard him say he didn't have a place. And he said he looked like a very nice young man. And he was afraid that he might get in with the wrong crowd.
  • [00:10:30.12] So he talked to him. And he said, hold on a minute. Let me call my landlady and see if you can go to her house and take my room.
  • [00:10:40.62] And so he called my mother. And my mother said, well, I don't know. You don't know anything about this boy, and I have a daughter. I don't know about it.
  • [00:10:49.56] And so he said, well, he looks like a real nice boy, said he's country looking, but with good values. And he just looks like he came from a good home. And so my mother's, well, OK, bring him home. And he brought him home.
  • [00:11:04.18] And from the day that my mother opened the door, she took him in as her son. And he was like my brother. And his mother and his family came to Detroit that Christmas to meet us, because he was always talking about us when he would write letters.
  • [00:11:19.92] And so then our families became very close. And that summer I would go to Montgomery, Alabama to live with them for the summer. And then that next year, his younger sister would come to Detroit to stay with us, until the family moved from Montgomery to Detroit.
  • [00:11:37.38] And we're friends even today. And that was from 11 years ago. So that was our household.
  • [00:11:45.27] SPEAKER: What languages were spoken in or around your household?
  • [00:11:50.19] OPAL SIMMONS: English.
  • [00:11:52.85] SPEAKER: Were different languages spoken in different cities, such as home, in the neighborhood, or in local stores?
  • [00:11:59.03] OPAL SIMMONS: In the neighborhood, because we lived in a mixed neighborhood. Most of the people at that time were Polish. And they would speak Polish, but we did not speak Polish.
  • [00:12:11.76] SPEAKER: What was your family like when you were a child?
  • [00:12:15.28] OPAL SIMMONS: What were they like? Very loving and laughing and very upbeat. My mother just said that you have nothing to be sad about. You have life.
  • [00:12:31.01] And so we were always cheerful and looking forward to doing better then what we were doing, Always looking forward but yet enjoying the present. So it was just a good wholesome life.
  • [00:12:45.75] SPEAKER: What sort of work did your mother and father do?
  • [00:12:48.25] OPAL SIMMONS: My father worked in the factory. He was from the south. And when he came here that was when Ford was paying $5 a day to go the workers. And so a lot of people had migrated from the south to Detroit. And my father was one of them and worked in the foundry.
  • [00:13:07.45] And that was such a hard job. My father would work all day. And he would come home from work and he would lay on the couch and go to sleep, get up, eat, and then go to bed.
  • [00:13:18.79] And I used to say, daddy how, could you sleep? You've been sleep. But he said that job was just so hard, that that's what they do. They'd have to sleep before they go to bed.
  • [00:13:28.87] And my mother, my mother she did housework. And she went to school to be a cosmetology to do hair. She really didn't like that very much, but between doing hair and doing day work, those were two jobs that she had until later, when I was telling you she finally got a better job.
  • [00:13:50.15] SPEAKER: What is your earliest memory?
  • [00:13:58.19] OPAL SIMMONS: I believe my earliest memory of it was about my father in the lunch box, because that was so dear to me. And I think that that's the earliest I can really remember something significant happening.
  • [00:14:12.66] SPEAKER: What was a typical day for you like in your preschool years?
  • [00:14:18.73] OPAL SIMMONS: To do your chores. Everybody had chores. I had to keep my room clean.
  • [00:14:25.17] I had chores around the house to do. I had to sweep the floor, even when I was a little, you had to just do whatever you could do with that little, but always had something to do, because my mother said everybody had a responsibility in the house. And so I had to do my chores, but-- --excuse me-- my grandmother came to live with us too around that time. And she would say so it's my mother could work.
  • [00:14:48.46] So my grandmother was with us. And she said that you had to get your work done by 4:00 and at 4:00 o'clock you had to be dressed and clean to sit on the porch. All the work had to be done. And you had to be cleaned up and sitting on the porch at 4:00.
  • [00:15:06.58] SPEAKER: What did you do for fun?
  • [00:15:10.61] OPAL SIMMONS: Played had Hopscotch, rode my bike, and played with the children in the neighborhood. And somebody was always coming over to our house, as I said, and having dinners, going out to my grandmother's, my great grandmother's house. She lived in Ecorse. And that was really like in the country, at that time. Ecorse is built up now, but it was in the country.
  • [00:15:38.17] And she had a big house and a large yard. And we would have family reunions and not just family reunions, but every so often the family would get together at her house. Everybody would go to grandma's house. And we'd see our cousins and everybody. So that was what we did mostly.
  • [00:15:57.43] SPEAKER: Did you have any favorite toys?
  • [00:16:02.09] OPAL SIMMONS: Yes, I had a little dog that I called Poochie. And it was a black dog, like a Scottish dog. And that was my favorite toy.
  • [00:16:16.63] SPEAKER: Who made it?
  • [00:16:18.74] OPAL SIMMONS: My father got it-- no, my aunt bought it for me. And that was a gift from her.
  • [00:16:26.09] SPEAKER: Did you have any favorite game that you liked to play?
  • [00:16:29.74] OPAL SIMMONS: No, not particularly that I can remember.
  • [00:16:33.38] SPEAKER: Did you have any favorite books or a favorite book?
  • [00:16:38.68] OPAL SIMMONS: No, not a favorite, but I know my grandmother was always telling us to read. And she would read to us. But I'd never remember just a favorite, except Orphan Annie.
  • [00:16:51.46] I liked Orphan Annie at the time. My goodness, I haven't thought about that in a long time. But that was one of my favorite-- Little Orphan Annie.
  • [00:17:01.19] SPEAKER: Did you have any other favorite entertainment?
  • [00:17:04.36] OPAL SIMMONS: I liked to dance. And my cousin was a good dancer. And we would always dance around the house when we were little. But then as we grew older, we would go out to dances. And I continued. And I still love to dance today.
  • [00:17:20.87] SPEAKER: Were there any special days or events or family traditions you remember from early childhood years?
  • [00:17:28.83] OPAL SIMMONS: Just going to grandma's house, which was my great grandmother. And then I had an uncle who lived in Windsor and an aunt. And they had a farm. And we would go in the summertime and have hay rides. And I always loved the hay rides.
  • [00:17:43.02] And he had a horse we called Bob. And he was the ugliest, old looking horse. But he would always take us around, so we loved him.
  • [00:17:55.14] SPEAKER: Well, that completes the section of the questions about your early childhood. Thank you.
  • [00:17:59.84] OPAL SIMMONS: You're welcome.
  • [00:18:04.41] SPEAKER: In this part of the interview, we will talk about your time as a young person from about the age that kids really start school in the United States up until you began your professional career or work life.
  • [00:18:19.35] OPAL SIMMONS: OK.
  • [00:18:21.75] SPEAKER: Did you go to preschool?
  • [00:18:23.82] OPAL SIMMONS: No.
  • [00:18:25.58] SPEAKER: Did you go to kindergarten?
  • [00:18:27.08] OPAL SIMMONS: Yes.
  • [00:18:27.62] SPEAKER: Where?
  • [00:18:29.32] OPAL SIMMONS: Berry School, here in Detroit.
  • [00:18:31.73] SPEAKER: What do you remember about it?
  • [00:18:35.87] OPAL SIMMONS: I remember meeting a couple of girls that I'm still friends with today. Well, one of them just died a few years ago. But I remember meeting some girls that I met in kindergarten, and we are friends even today, those who are living.
  • [00:18:53.06] I remember also during that time, it was during the war. And this is kind of funny. At the time, during the war, we no longer could have elastic in our panties. And so they had little buttons on the side instead of elastic in your panties.
  • [00:19:13.07] And so in the beginning of the semester, everybody had to stand up in the front of the room. And the teacher would call your name and then give you a seat. That way, you'd come back and go sit down.
  • [00:19:24.89] And my girlfriend-- one that I told you that I was very close to-- she whispered to me, and she says, oh, stand in front of me. She says, the button just broke on my panties, and they're about to fall. And I said, what?
  • [00:19:37.64] And she told me again. And somehow I just got tickled. And I laughed, and I laughed. And tears were coming in her eyes.
  • [00:19:45.25] And she said, don't laugh. And I said, I can't help it. So I raised my hand. I told the teacher, we have to go.
  • [00:19:50.56] Teacher says, well, you need to wait. Said, no, we can't wait. And the teacher let us go out. And that was something that was really funny to me at that time.
  • [00:20:03.02] SPEAKER: Did you go to elementary school?
  • [00:20:04.59] OPAL SIMMONS: Yes. Yes. All of my education was in Detroit. And I don't remember anything particular now that stands out of elementary school, other than I had a lot of friends. And most of the people in the neighborhood also went to the same school. And we would walk to school together. And it was a good relationship going to school.
  • [00:20:33.43] When I went to school where I was living-- the neighborhood I lived in, it was mostly white students. And so the students who lived near to me who were black students, we kind of stayed together. And that made it much easier for us as we went to school and to mix.
  • [00:20:53.66] And if the other kids didn't mix with us, it was OK. We had each other, because it was a little rough. Sometimes they didn't mix with you too well.
  • [00:21:03.79] SPEAKER: Did you go to high school?
  • [00:21:05.62] OPAL SIMMONS: Yes, I did. I went to high school. I went to Eastern High School. Today it's called Martin Luther King High School. But then when I went it was Eastern High School, and it was on the boulevard. It's torn down now.
  • [00:21:17.75] And I played basketball while I was in high school and enjoyed that. I used to stay at school until about 5 o'clock, just playing basketball. And I have a memory of that that helped me through life. As I told you that most of the students were white, and I was on the basketball team.
  • [00:21:41.06] And I wasn't an outstanding player, but I was OK. I was pretty good. And when we went to their gym class, again, at the first part of the semester, you would have to sit on the side. And then it would divide the class. And two girls would start picking people to be on their teams.
  • [00:22:06.84] And so of course, the black kids always got chosen last. And so as I was sitting there and the white girls, they were choosing from one side to the other, and I was going to be the last person to be chosen-- she had to choose me. I was the last one. My gym teacher walked by.
  • [00:22:24.02] And she walked by, and she says, they don't know what they're missing, do they? And she kept walking. That made me feel so good for the teacher to have said that. And that's all she said. And she just kept walking.
  • [00:22:39.86] And what was so outstanding about that was sometimes you don't know what to say to a person. And you don't have to say a lot. But you have to think.
  • [00:22:49.16] And what she said was just right on point. She didn't make me feel sorry for myself. She made me feel like, you're good, and they just don't know what they're missing. And that just went through with me all the rest of my life.
  • [00:23:04.22] And I thought how teachers and other people in your life can be so meaningful to say the right thing, especially a teacher to a student. If you say just that right thing-- and it doesn't have to be a lot-- just something like that to make that student feel, hey, you're OK. So that is something I will never forget. I thought was wonderful.
  • [00:23:28.89] SPEAKER: Did you go to school or career training beyond high school?
  • [00:23:33.72] OPAL SIMMONS: Well, I went to college from high school. I graduated when I was 16. And I went to Fisk University for a year. By the time I got there, I was 17.
  • [00:23:46.04] And I became engaged to my childhood sweetheart. And again, it was during the war. And so I stayed there a year, and I came back to go to Wayne.
  • [00:23:56.69] And then I decided that second year of college to go to New York, because my aunt had moved to New York. I wanted to go to New York and work, because I wanted to make money to buy clothes to get married when he got out of service. And I did that.
  • [00:24:12.92] And then a couple years later, he was going to go overseas. And we were to get married before he was going to go. And my mother didn't want me to get married before he went overseas, because she said, ooh, anything could happen. He could get hurt or something.
  • [00:24:27.84] And so we didn't care. We wanted to get married. And at that time, the airlines would let wives and sweethearts. Or if you were engaged on the plane there you would have a priority to get on the plane after the soldiers. And so where he was, they were trying to get me-- I was in New York, and they were trying to get me on the plane to fly me to where he was before he went overseas.
  • [00:24:57.18] And we were going to get married. And he got quarantined. And I couldn't go.
  • [00:25:01.67] So my mother was very happy. And so that was a big disappointment. But I thought how things are just in divine order.
  • [00:25:13.97] And if I had gone that way, that I probably would never have become a minister. And my whole life changed, and I think for the better, because I've had a good life. So sometimes things you think you want and you don't get at the time, maybe that's the way it's supposed to be.
  • [00:25:40.38] SPEAKER: Did you play any sports or join any other activities outside of school?
  • [00:25:45.74] OPAL SIMMONS: No. Mm-mm.
  • [00:25:48.24] SPEAKER: What about your school experience is different from school as you know it is today?
  • [00:25:56.31] OPAL SIMMONS: How do you mean that? Different--
  • [00:25:58.20] SPEAKER: From when you were in school and how school systems are now.
  • [00:26:03.30] OPAL SIMMONS: Oh. Yes. They're different. Well, it's been so long since I've been around the children today, been in the school system. I kind of go by what I hear.
  • [00:26:17.91] But what I've noticed from listening to my friends who have children in school and since my daughter's been out of school for so long, because my daughter's in her 60s-- so I listen to them. And what I see on TV, I hate that they don't seem to care about each other. And everybody is so distant.
  • [00:26:43.96] I can see them walk by each other and never speak. And they're not angry. It's just like another piece of furniture.
  • [00:26:49.39] I look at you. Instead of looking at you, I don't look at you. I look beyond you.
  • [00:26:53.43] And I see that. And that's sad, because I think every human being should see another human being when they look at you and when you pass. And if even you don't speak, you kind of smile or give some recognition there's another human being. But I don't see that.
  • [00:27:09.82] I don't see it on TV with the kids. And I don't see it-- and even in our church sometimes, I'd have to get after the kids. You didn't speak. Why aren't you speaking? You just walked by each other.
  • [00:27:20.58] And they'd, oh, Reverend Simmons-- they don't even know me. It's just a thing now. But I think that's sad. I think that's why we're having so much trouble, too, because we don't see each other as human beings and respect each other.
  • [00:27:38.01] So I think that's a big difference. And I think a lot of it starts in school, because that's where you see a lot of people. And I know some of it is you're afraid you don't know the people, but that's sad, too.
  • [00:27:54.67] SPEAKER: Can you please describe the popular music during your school years?
  • [00:28:00.08] OPAL SIMMONS: Bebop and jazz. Yeah, bebop and jazz, Sarah Vaughan. So we had a lot of good artists when I was in school, coming up.
  • [00:28:17.66] SPEAKER: Did this music have any dances that associated with it?
  • [00:28:24.19] OPAL SIMMONS: So what we used to call social dance, because I notice today, girls and boys don't really dance together. They stand and dance separate. But when I was coming up, you danced close. And we called that social dance.
  • [00:28:41.26] That was a thing. And we used to jitterbug, which was fast dance-- and again, with someone. It was more than just yourself.
  • [00:28:51.76] Today people dance alone. And even now, line dancing-- and the reason line dancing is so popular today is because so many women don't have husbands anymore. They've passed, or there aren't enough men around.
  • [00:29:07.69] And so if you don't line dance, you don't get to dance at all. You don't have a partner. So I can see the line dancing now.
  • [00:29:15.25] But before, it was with a partner. And you could walk up and ask somebody to dance without knowing them, and it was OK, respectfully. Would you like to have a dance? And you would dance with them.
  • [00:29:28.72] And when the dance was over, they'd walk you back to the table. And that was it. But they don't do that anymore.
  • [00:29:37.65] SPEAKER: Were there any popular clothing or hairstyles?
  • [00:29:42.02] OPAL SIMMONS: Yes, we wore bangs a lot at that time when I was growing up and page boys, which is down and turned under. That was very popular. And then later was upsweep.
  • [00:29:56.99] I guess I'm saying things you probably don't even-- the upsweep, you wear your hair all the way up. Brush, comb it up, and then it's around here. That's called upsweep. That was popular when I was-- and we wore flowers in our hair, like the gardenia.
  • [00:30:12.83] SPEAKER: Can you describe any other fades or style for your era?
  • [00:30:19.69] OPAL SIMMONS: As a teenager, Bobby socks-- the white and-- saddle oxfords. That was a big thing then. Skirts, pleats, no jeans at that time. No jeans at that time. Pants pulled up.
  • [00:30:40.48] SPEAKER: Were there any slang terms or phrases that were used that aren't in common use today?
  • [00:30:50.44] OPAL SIMMONS: I don't know. Is "What's happening now"-- is "What is happening?" is that in today? I don't know. People used to walk up and say, "What's happening?" something like that.
  • [00:31:01.03] But I don't know. See, I'm not around young people anymore, now that I retired from the church, even. But that's all I can think of right now.
  • [00:31:12.03] SPEAKER: What was a typical day like for you in this time period?
  • [00:31:17.30] OPAL SIMMONS: OK. I'm in the teens part now? Going to school, coming home, getting your homework done. And I always had to have a key around my neck, because my mom worked until my grandmother came to stay with us.
  • [00:31:33.82] But when I was a younger teen, I was latchkey-- that's what they called it-- latchkey child, because parents worked. You were home by yourself. You had to have a key around your neck. When I was coming up, there were some children in the neighborhood whose parents did not work, and they were home. And you kind of missed that.
  • [00:31:54.21] So my mother explained that to me. I used to say, Mother, I wish you were home. So-and-so's mother is home. And she'd say, well, so-and-so's mother doesn't have to go with what I have to go through.
  • [00:32:04.14] And then she said, I'd like to be home. But if I do, you can't have this. You can't have that. I'm trying to save for you to go to college.
  • [00:32:10.89] So it's a reason. And she would try to explain that to me. So then I got used to it. I didn't like it. But I understood that it was because she was trying to make a better life for me.
  • [00:32:25.42] SPEAKER: What did you do for fun?
  • [00:32:28.45] OPAL SIMMONS: Rode my bike. I used to love to ride my bike. Go to Belle Isle, dance whenever I could-- and when I was a teenager, my mother was smart. On Sundays, you couldn't go-- if you didn't go to church, you didn't go to show or anything like that. You stayed home.
  • [00:32:50.24] So you'd go to church on Sunday. And then we didn't have places to go like you do today-- I mean, a lot of places. So we had a lot of parties at home. But somebody said like, one Sunday it would be at my house, next Sunday at your house, next Sunday at someone else's house. And you'd have baloney sandwiches and Kool-Aid, like that.
  • [00:33:09.08] But my house was where the kids always wanted to come. And my mother would let us have the party at my house, until I got tired. I said, well, I never get a chance to go anywhere. It's always at my house.
  • [00:33:20.26] And so my mother said, oh, that's OK, that's OK. And should would always fix up so we could be-- and that was because she was gone always through the week, working. So on Sundays, the parties would be at my house most of the time.
  • [00:33:31.99] And when you danced, they used to have blue lights and red lights. And my mother would let us-- we'd put the blue light on, the red light on. But she would watch how close you dance, because I told you how you danced close.
  • [00:33:45.15] And she would come back and she'd say, OK, get back a little bit. And they'd say, OK, OK, Ms. Graham. That's OK. We're not too close. And the kids liked her, because we'd have a lot of fun.
  • [00:33:58.07] So that was it. I was always homework first. And I didn't go much during the week, because you had to do your homework. You had to do your chores, go to bed early.
  • [00:34:09.16] But the weekends-- that was my weekend. And there was always the dance, a party, or something. When I say "dance," it was somebody's house. Somebody was giving a party. And that was a teenager until-- later when I got older, I started going out to dances, to ballrooms, and things like that.
  • [00:34:30.93] SPEAKER: Did your family have any special sayings or expressions during this time?
  • [00:34:37.86] OPAL SIMMONS: My mother-- "Be nice." "Be nice." And I remember when I was younger, she started that. And she used to say, you want to grow up to be nice, because if something happens to Mother, nobody will want to take you.
  • [00:34:52.80] She was always afraid, if she died, I would go into an orphanage or something. And she said, nobody will want to take you if you aren't nice. And she would always say that. And she'd always say, "Be nice."
  • [00:35:05.58] SPEAKER: Were there any changes in your family during your school years?
  • [00:35:11.40] OPAL SIMMONS: Changes during school years? Yes, when I got 16 was when my mother and father got a divorce, which hurt very much. And as I told you, he was my stepfather, but he raised me like I was his child. And he'd always said that.
  • [00:35:31.49] And we had such good, special moments together, like the lunchbox and even other-- going places together. And he'd always said that we would always be father and daughter. And then when he got the divorce and he was going with this lady he was going with, she said she didn't want him to keep in touch with me, because I wasn't really his daughter. And so he stopped keeping in touch with me at 16, which hurt and which I didn't blame her. I blamed him, because people do what they want to do.
  • [00:36:08.70] SPEAKER: Were there any special days, events, or family traditions you remember from this time?
  • [00:36:15.03] OPAL SIMMONS: I'm sorry, would you repeat that?
  • [00:36:16.44] SPEAKER: Were there any special days, events, or family traditions that you remember from this time?
  • [00:36:24.79] OPAL SIMMONS: No, just the same family get-togethers as before. It just went all through life. And then when my grandmother came to live with us, other people-- my cousins and my aunts and them, they would come over more often, because my grandmother was there.
  • [00:36:42.75] So everybody came at our house at Christmas and all because of my grandmother. And when my grandmother died, it stopped coming as much. But it was always at our house, because Grandma-- she's the head of the family-- was there.
  • [00:36:59.36] SPEAKER: Which holidays did your family celebrate?
  • [00:37:03.10] OPAL SIMMONS: We celebrated Christmas, Easter. When I was really young, we used to celebrate the 4th of July a lot and put the flag out. But as I got older, we stopped doing that as much, especially putting the flag out.
  • [00:37:19.87] And that was because so much was going on-- the wars and we were feeling like second-class citizens. So much was going on in the society. And I missed that, because I liked being patriotic when I was real young. I really like that.
  • [00:37:36.13] But so much what happened. And when my father would tell stories about lynchings and things that had happened, and I used to say, oh, Daddy, you aren't telling the truth. Stop. I thought he was just making up stuff. And as I got older and saw that he wasn't, it just took on a new meaning for me. So now 4th of July, it was just a day off.
  • [00:38:01.20] SPEAKER: How are family tradition celebrated in your family?
  • [00:38:06.59] OPAL SIMMONS: With dinners. You know, people, we like to eat. Potluck-- somebody brings their special dish and put it together and eat. That's how usually it's done. But now that we've gotten older, especially my generation, we stop having the potluck, and we go to some restaurant. And nobody wants to cook anymore and have it that way.
  • [00:38:37.60] SPEAKER: Have your family created their own traditions or celebrations?
  • [00:38:40.91] OPAL SIMMONS: We started doing Kwanzaa about 10 years ago, little longer than that. We started celebrate Kwanzaa, which is very nice.
  • [00:38:55.74] SPEAKER: What special food traditions does your family have?
  • [00:39:07.09] OPAL SIMMONS: Sweets. My mom liked to cook pies-- lemon pie, lemon meringue pie. And that's what she was known for-- her macaroni and cheese. And my dad was known for his biscuits. He made good biscuits. But other than that, just a good meal.
  • [00:39:27.30] SPEAKER: Were any recipes preserved and passed down in the family for generations to generation?
  • [00:39:32.51] OPAL SIMMONS: No, and I'm sorry about that. I wish I could bake his biscuits. I have no idea how he did them.
  • [00:39:40.27] SPEAKER: Are there family stories connected to making special foods?
  • [00:39:43.94] OPAL SIMMONS: No.
  • [00:39:46.97] SPEAKER: When thinking back on your school years, what important social or historical events were taking place at this time? And how did they personally affect you and your family?
  • [00:39:59.24] OPAL SIMMONS: Special events?
  • [00:40:01.09] SPEAKER: Yeah, like historical events, such as when you said the war.
  • [00:40:05.69] OPAL SIMMONS: OK. And that was all through, just about, my coming up. It was one war after another when I was coming up. And that affected us because my cousins all went off to war.
  • [00:40:16.38] And we were writing letters. I remember from 14 on, writing letters to somebody in the family who was overseas fighting, like the young man that I told you about that we took in, like my brother. Well, the day that he was drafted and the day that he was to go off to war and had to report, there was a riot going on in '43. And it was so dangerous, he could not go to report-- that they had to send a truck-- an open truck, army truck-- with soldiers in it with their guns and the bayonets standing up like this to pick him up to go to war to fight for freedom.
  • [00:41:05.32] And that was pretty sad. And so then I was writing letters to him. And I was real young then. I was, like, 9. No, I was about 11.
  • [00:41:18.99] And then my cousins went when we got a little older. So there was always somebody at war. Then my boyfriend went.
  • [00:41:27.10] The war is a lot from the time period that I lived, which people would be much different if it hadn't been. And they would come home and trying to readjust to life. Some people make it, and some people have a hard time.
  • [00:41:42.99] Some soldiers come back and just have a hard time readjusting. And people don't really realize it, thinking, well, a lot of people go off to war, so what's wrong with them? But everybody's different. Everybody can't readjust.
  • [00:41:58.05] So that was kind of sad. My grandmother used to tell me-- she said, ooh. She said, it's too bad that you came up in a time like this.
  • [00:42:05.79] And then also, I was the time that was the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Kennedy and all of that. So it was really doom a lot-- the wars and then that. And I remember that even after when Martin Luther King was killed, I felt so down for so long.
  • [00:42:31.21] I remember praying. I said, Lord, I just don't like the spirit of-- it's just too heavy. It was a heavy spirit.
  • [00:42:38.81] And so it eventually wore off. But it was always something like that going on. But my grandmother would say, you have life, and you have to make the best of what you have.
  • [00:42:51.43] And you rise above circumstances. And so I remember that. And so you do rise above circumstances.
  • [00:43:02.37] SPEAKER: Well, that completes the section of questions about your school years. Thank you.
  • [00:43:06.67] OPAL SIMMONS: You're welcome. Am I answering, taking too long? Because I'm thinking of these things, and they're coming back. OK.
  • [00:43:20.54] SPEAKER: This set of questions covers a fairly long period of your life from the time you completed your education, into the labor force, or starting a family, until all of your children's left home and you and/or a spouse retired from work. So we might be talking about a stretch of time spanning as much as four decades.
  • [00:43:44.62] OPAL SIMMONS: OK.
  • [00:43:47.04] SPEAKER: After you finished high school, where did you live?
  • [00:43:51.72] OPAL SIMMONS: After I finished high school, I went to Fisk, stayed there a year, to Nashville, Tennessee. And then I went to New York and lived there about three years-- not quite three. Yeah, about three years. And then I came back to Detroit, and then I've been in Detroit ever since.
  • [00:44:09.17] SPEAKER: How did you come to live in the state?
  • [00:44:12.95] OPAL SIMMONS: In New York? Because my aunt was there-- my mom's sister. And that was when I went there, because I was planning on getting a job, which I did, and working and buying clothes to get married.
  • [00:44:26.26] SPEAKER: Did you remain there, or did you move around during your working adult life? And what was the reason for these moves?
  • [00:44:33.70] OPAL SIMMONS: OK. Well, when I was in New York and my fiancee got shipped away before we could get married, I stayed there. And I worked, and I partied.
  • [00:44:44.45] And I had such a good time until, at that time, when you would go to a dance-- we had Duke Ellington, Lionel Hampton. Those people would be at the same dance hall. Like, in Detroit, you'd see one, you'd be doing good. But they'd have both of those great names at a dance hall in New York.
  • [00:45:07.49] And I got a job at Lane Bryant's. And I met a girl there, who we had loads of fun. And then we got laid off.
  • [00:45:13.46] And what they would do, they would lay you off just before you made your 90 days. So they wouldn't have to pay you all the benefits. So they laid us off. And we were drawing on compensation.
  • [00:45:25.55] And so we just partied after that. And we were going horseback riding and just taking in New York, really seeing New York, because before, we were working. But we just did everything, went to these dances. And as I told you, I love to dance.
  • [00:45:40.70] And Lionel Hampton and Duke Ellington and all of them-- and one night I was at the Savoy Dance. And my feet hurt. And they were wearing suede shoes at the time.
  • [00:45:51.74] And those suede, after you danced, they just kind of pull in on your feet. And I had to take the shoes off to walk to the subway. And somebody said, let's go to another party. And I said, oh, OK.
  • [00:46:03.98] And I went so much, until I told my-- and I'm very close to-- I was close to my grandmother. And I said, Grandma, I'm coming home before I kill myself. And she says, well, I thought you'd have sense enough, once you had partied enough, that you would get fed up.
  • [00:46:23.30] So that's what made me come back to Detroit. I figured, I had enough of this now. I'm ready to settle down. And I came back to Detroit and started working and stayed here.
  • [00:46:39.16] SPEAKER: I'd like you to tell me a little about your married and family life. First, tell me about your spouse. Where and when did you meet?
  • [00:46:50.42] OPAL SIMMONS: My spouse I married, we met in Detroit. He was in Detroit. And that was my first husband. And he went to Northwestern.
  • [00:47:07.19] CAMERA CREW: Stop right here.
  • [00:47:09.21] SPEAKER: Tell me about your children and what life was like when they were young and living in the house.
  • [00:47:14.65] OPAL SIMMONS: OK. I only have one daughter. And my daughter is adopted. I adopted her when she was two years old, and she's 61 years old now.
  • [00:47:26.72] And she and I were very close. Well, she was proud of that. With my first husband, I said I didn't want to talk about-- well, she was proud of that.
  • [00:47:41.10] And I always felt that God put her in my life, because I've never had a pregnancy, which I never knew then that I wouldn't ever have a child. But I felt that God put her in my life. And she needed me, and I needed her.
  • [00:47:56.68] And so that happened without us even knowing that. And so we are very close. And I had to always work.
  • [00:48:07.32] And she became a latchkey baby, like me. And I had to explain to her that I had to work, and she had to put up with it. And so she did. But we have a very close relationship.
  • [00:48:24.89] But it was hard, because I was working six days a week when I was raising her. And I felt guilty about that. But I couldn't do any better than that. So that was it. So that was just the one.
  • [00:48:42.01] SPEAKER: Tell me about your working life.
  • [00:48:47.36] OPAL SIMMONS: My work life-- I was very fortunate to-- well, first, I had several jobs before the one I'm going to tell you that I got in '73. I was fortunate enough to work in the Coleman Young administration. And my minister at the time was Reverend Wadsworth, who also was an appointee of the mayor's.
  • [00:49:13.82] And I got a call saying that I had been appointed-- my name had been given as-- so Opal, he says, I'm sorry to say, I didn't. He said, I didn't. So I didn't know who did.
  • [00:49:27.89] So anyway, I got the appointment. And I was the secretary to the deputy mayor. Before I got to be the secretary to the deputy mayor, I got the appointment to be there. And I was one of the secretaries in the pool.
  • [00:49:43.82] And I was there two years before I ever knew who gave my name. And when I found out who gave my name-- the man who took care of all that work for us, I kept asking him, who gave my name? And he says, oh, not going to tell you.
  • [00:50:03.41] So two years went by. And he said, you really want to know? I said, yes, I'd like to know. So he told me. He said, it was Joyce Garrett.
  • [00:50:13.28] And I thought, Joyce Garrett? And Joyce Garrett was the mayor's girlfriend at the time. And she was very smart lady. She was one of the first black in several jobs in the city of Detroit.
  • [00:50:31.17] And I'm telling this because it's a good lesson that when I met her, I was working for the county in the Civil Service office. And when she would come-- Joyce Garrett, she was one of the first black women on the commission. And when she-- you want to say something?
  • [00:50:53.61] CAMERA CREW: No.
  • [00:50:54.97] OPAL SIMMONS: OK. And when she would come to the office, we would fix the coffee for the commissioners. And my girls didn't want to fix it for her, because she was very, [SNIFFS], like this. And so they even said to me, I don't see why you want to just wait on her. She doesn't really talk to you.
  • [00:51:17.10] But she was black. And so I said, that's OK. She's got her position.
  • [00:51:23.77] So even if it wasn't my turn to fix the coffee, I'd see how they were acting. I would get up and say, Miss Garret, would you want this? And fix for her, not knowing her, other than the fact that I was proud of her.
  • [00:51:38.85] That woman was very smart, looked good. All eyes turned when she walked in. So I tell you that to say that she is the one that gave my name to be there, which I didn't find out.
  • [00:51:52.74] So when I finally found out, I sent her a dozen roses and thanked her and told her that I never knew, because she never said anything. And so she says, that sounds like him, not telling you. And so she says, I wondered why you never said anything. And I told her I never knew.
  • [00:52:10.03] But the reason that stuck with me so much is how you don't treat people a way that other people are treating them. And it was true. She'd never just say, oh, hi, how are you? She would smile. And she would nod sometimes, like that.
  • [00:52:25.40] But my job was to be a good secretary, I thought. And I thought I was good to whoever it was. And then I was proud of her. Whether she was proud of me or not, I was proud of her, of her accomplishments.
  • [00:52:39.38] And so she is the one that gave my name. And that's how I got to be in the mayor's office. And Coleman Young was the first black mayor in the city of Detroit.
  • [00:52:51.41] That's another lesson I'll never forget. My mother always taught me that-- be careful how you treat people. You never know who's who.
  • [00:53:01.32] And I'm sure you've heard that. You could be talking to angels. You just never know. You just be right with people.
  • [00:53:08.81] So that was a blessing to be there. And then after that, I got promoted to the deputy mayor's-- secretary to the deputy mayor. And then I married the deputy mayor.
  • [00:53:32.30] So all my blessings came. And I had always been taught, too, you never go with the boss and all this. And so when it was first this started happening, I thought, no, I don't think that.
  • [00:53:46.91] And I talked to my mother about that. And she said, yeah, you have to be careful. But this man was such a great man. It was different.
  • [00:53:54.61] So when we started dating, he put me in a different department. And so I married him. And he was a great man. So just looking back over my life, how my blessings came to me were very good lessons.
  • [00:54:18.67] SPEAKER: What was a typical day like during the working years of your adult life?
  • [00:54:24.50] OPAL SIMMONS: A typical working day?
  • [00:54:25.86] SPEAKER: Yes.
  • [00:54:30.10] OPAL SIMMONS: Worked very hard, because whatever I did, I was always taught, whatever you do-- if you sweep the floor, make sure that floor is clean. And I was a secretary. And I loved being a secretary. And I was a good one.
  • [00:54:43.18] And when I had to leave that job and go to another place, the people would come and say, Richard sure misses you and took three girls to try to replace me. And when I left, they asked me for my Rolodex with all of my names and contacts, because whenever I got a contact from somebody, I always kept it. I put it on a Rolodex, put down the secretary's name, and everything like that.
  • [00:55:10.91] So if you ever needed it again, you had it. And so this was-- I loved my job. And I put myself into it, and it paid off.
  • [00:55:35.15] SPEAKER: Well, that completes the section of questions about your working years.
  • [00:55:39.16] OPAL SIMMONS: OK.
  • [00:55:43.98] SPEAKER: --to present time. What was your main field of employment?
  • [00:55:50.49] OPAL SIMMONS: I worked for the county as a secretary-- was the main thing until-- I worked a number of years for the county. Then I went to the city, to the mayor's office, and worked there. I had an appointment as one of the secretaries.
  • [00:56:07.77] And then I left there. And I went to seminary, and I became a minister. And so I'm retired from ministry-- from staff of ministry, because you don't retire from ministry. But I retired from the staff.
  • [00:56:23.34] It was about four years ago, because my mother-- I had to go home to take care of my mother, who was ailing. And she just passed this past February at 102. So now I'm getting back, going more, getting out, taking more engagements-- more preaching engagements, more speaking engagements-- now that I have the time.
  • [00:56:50.73] SPEAKER: How did you first get started with this tradition, skill, and job?
  • [00:56:55.38] OPAL SIMMONS: Well, how I first got started with working for the county and then the city was when I was a teenager, before I finished high school. We would listen to the news and complain about the city. And my grandmother said to me, well, if you don't like the way the city is going, why don't you go to work for the city and make things better and do what you can to make it better?
  • [00:57:17.83] So when I went to college, I went into political science with that in mind. But I stopped and went to New York and worked there a while after I finished school. And then I came back to Detroit. I stayed in New York about three years.
  • [00:57:35.79] And I came back to Detroit and went and worked for the county in the civil service department. Then I got the appointment for the mayor, Mayor Coleman Young. In '73 is when I got the appointment. And he started in '74.
  • [00:57:55.26] And I stayed there until '82, '83. And then I went to the church full-time. And then that same time, I was going to school. I went to seminary as I was working.
  • [00:58:12.67] And so that's how I started in the ministry. I had belonged to the church all along. And our minister asked me-- he was ailing. And he knew that he didn't have much longer to live.
  • [00:58:27.12] And he was trying to get things together for the church. And one of our young men of the church, we always knew he would become pastor. And he is the pastor now. It's Reverend Wendell Anthony.
  • [00:58:38.92] And he also wanted someone else to work along with him at that time. And he chose me to do that. So that's how I got started full-time in the ministry and stayed there until I had to leave to take care of my mother.
  • [00:58:54.99] SPEAKER: What got you interested?
  • [00:58:57.34] OPAL SIMMONS: Well, interested in ministry?
  • [00:58:59.46] SPEAKER: Yes, and also with the city.
  • [00:59:01.14] OPAL SIMMONS: With the city, what got me interested was because, as I said, my grandmother had said to me, if you don't like the way things are being run, why don't you learn about it and go and do something about it? And that's what got me interested in wanting to work for the city and the county.
  • [00:59:15.39] But I took exams, and I got a job with the county first. And then I got the appointment with the city. So that's what I was interested in. But then I found that politics really wasn't my thing. And ministry was more of my calling.
  • [00:59:33.90] SPEAKER: Describe the steps of the process involved in your job from start to finish.
  • [00:59:40.95] OPAL SIMMONS: The first job at the county?
  • [00:59:42.97] SPEAKER: Yes.
  • [00:59:44.17] OPAL SIMMONS: OK. Well, the county, I was the secretary. It was a pool of secretaries. And I worked in the law office there for the corporation counsel's office. Civil service exam, you have to take. And that's how I started that, typing of the briefs and so forth and assisting the lawyers with the typing.
  • [01:00:05.28] Then I went to the city. And I was working in civil service. And that was, again, secretarial work, assisting those who were taking care of the exams and so forth to get people into the city. So that was a full-time job.
  • [01:00:25.20] And then the appointment to the mayor's office was an appointment as the secretary. And yesterday I was telling you my story about that and how I got appointed. And I did not know the person at all who appointed me and didn't find out for two years later who it was.
  • [01:00:42.09] And then I went to her to thank her for choosing me. And that stayed with me a long time, because I thought of how we treat people not necessarily mean, but ignore them or not as nice as we should be. And my mother used to always say, "Be nice. Be nice to people. You never know who you're talking to."
  • [01:01:01.83] And how the other people around, they weren't that nice to this lady. And she was terrific. She's one of the first black women to be on the commission. Very intelligent.
  • [01:01:14.01] And a lot of people didn't like her for that reason. You know how people talk this way. So they didn't want to serve her coffee when she was in a meeting. And I did.
  • [01:01:26.70] And she wasn't necessarily friendly to me. She was just very businesslike. She would nod, rather than just speak.
  • [01:01:32.85] And I was very proud of her. So I did take care of her, never knowing that she was looking at me in any way, because she certainly didn't show it. And she is the one that appointed me to the mayor's office.
  • [01:01:48.52] SPEAKER: What was a typical day like during the working years of your adult life?
  • [01:01:54.86] OPAL SIMMONS: Well, I have a daughter, I was saying to you yesterday. And so I had to work. I worked six days a week, which was very hard, because I had to see that she had after-school activities-- latchkey child with the key around her neck and so forth.
  • [01:02:12.54] So the day at work was constantly taking care of my job and then thinking about what I could do for her, putting her in camp, daycare, and so forth. So that was always on my mind. What was on my mind was always what I needed to do to give her a good life. So that's what's on most mothers' minds when they have to do two of the three things at one time. You don't have the privilege of being a stay-at-home mother, that you have to work, but yet you still have to see that everything is done.
  • [01:02:45.55] SPEAKER: What specific training or skills were needed for your job?
  • [01:02:50.06] OPAL SIMMONS: For the county, was secretarial skills. So at that time, it was the typewriter. And today people don't know what the typewriter is anymore. They say, what is a typewriter?
  • [01:03:02.87] But it was the typewriter-- to be able to type well, spell well, follow directions. That was the main thing, as it is today, I'm sure. But you had to be skilled at that, because when I was in high school, I was in college preparatory. And I had a very fine counselor who told me to take typing, because I would always have a job if I knew how to type.
  • [01:03:29.49] And she was so right, because she said, you're going to college. But what can you do while you're trying to master whatever you're taking? So you need a skill. And so typing was the skill that got me the jobs. Today it's computer.
  • [01:03:45.66] SPEAKER: What tools are involved?
  • [01:03:50.72] OPAL SIMMONS: The tools would be the typewriter. And as I said today, it would be the computer. Good skill is being on time at work, being responsible for what you do, being sure that you carry out whatever the responsibilities that you have. Those are the things that really help you to move forward in any career that you have. So that's what I had to do.
  • [01:04:19.20] SPEAKER: How and when were they used?
  • [01:04:23.15] OPAL SIMMONS: How the skills were they used?
  • [01:04:24.44] SPEAKER: Like, the typewriter.
  • [01:04:25.34] OPAL SIMMONS: The typewriter? Well, during the day, you would go to work. And you would have your assignments about what had to be typed up, because we were working for lawyers. And they had briefs that had to be typed up.
  • [01:04:35.84] And there was a form that you had to follow for the briefs. So you would go in, and you would take the briefs or whatever work you had. Sometimes you were called in to take dictation. And shorthand was the thing at that time. And you would take shorthand and take a letter.
  • [01:04:56.70] So the skills would be to help the lawyer to get his work done, either through answering the telephone, making calls back, making appointments, typing up letters, seeing people that he could not see, rescheduling appointments. Those were the things that-- that's how your day would go. And you had to be pleasant while you were doing it, because sometimes the public was not always very nice.
  • [01:05:26.76] SPEAKER: What technology changes occurred during your working years?
  • [01:05:30.89] OPAL SIMMONS: Well, the computer was coming. They were talking about-- well, first, before that, they were talking about the typewriter that you could type in the electric typewriter. That was really kind of coming in at the time that I was still typing with a regular typewriter.
  • [01:05:49.22] But I remember that also the Xerox machine was coming in. And it was a large, monstrous-looking thing. So all those things were kind of coming in slowly. And people kept saying, always keep up, because when new things come in, you need to learn them.
  • [01:06:08.03] And some of us in the office, we didn't want to be bothered. We knew our way, and we didn't want to. But that's a mistake. You have to just keep up with the new things.
  • [01:06:16.73] And when you don't, you're just left behind. So we had to keep up and change with the new things that came along, like even using a Xerox machine-- changing the machine, putting the paper in correctly. Otherwise, you mess up the whole machine, and you can't get your work done. So that's the kind of day was-- to be efficient, I guess, would be the best way to say it.
  • [01:06:40.85] SPEAKER: What is the biggest difference in your main field of employment from the time you started until now?
  • [01:06:49.01] OPAL SIMMONS: Well, in college, I was saying that I went into political science. But I remember also, someone had said, why don't you change to social work? I wasn't sure about either one of them.
  • [01:07:04.52] And I did go into political science and found out that I did not like politics. But I also knew that I like people and wanted to help people. And so I went into ministry. And that, I got everything-- the politics, the helping people, the social work, the counseling. Everything came through that, being a minister.
  • [01:07:30.77] SPEAKER: How do you judge excellence within your field?
  • [01:07:38.03] OPAL SIMMONS: I judge it by how you take care of-- well, now, the parishioners, when they come to see you, are you accessible for them? Do they feel comfortable in talking to you? Do you listen? It's very important to listen rather than to have so much to say when people come to you.
  • [01:08:02.43] It's very important to carefully listen and let them make the decision. You can kind of guide them a little, but it's important to listen and let the person hear themselves. And then when they do, that they really work it out for themselves.
  • [01:08:19.35] SPEAKER: What makes someone respected in that field?
  • [01:08:24.03] OPAL SIMMONS: I think what makes them respected by keeping your word. If you say you're going to do something, that you do it. If you can't, that you pick up the telephone and call and say, I'm sorry, I said I would meet with you, but something came up, and I cannot. I'd like to reschedule. Just always acknowledging another person is how you get respect.
  • [01:08:46.38] Let them understand that you care about them, that you are there for them, and that there are times, though, you cannot do what you want to do. But you can't just be silent about it. You have to speak to them to let them know that. I think that's how you get respect.
  • [01:09:03.57] SPEAKER: What do you value most about what you did for a living?
  • [01:09:09.90] OPAL SIMMONS: I value most the people, the relationship that I have with people. The parishioners are very warm. And although I've retired, when I go back to church, I just feel the warmth. And it's coming from them.
  • [01:09:25.26] And they're glad to see me. And I'm glad to see them. So it's something that you feel.
  • [01:09:34.64] SPEAKER: What is the biggest difference in your main field of employment from the time you started until now?
  • [01:09:41.75] OPAL SIMMONS: The main difference?
  • [01:09:42.71] SPEAKER: Yes.
  • [01:09:44.42] OPAL SIMMONS: Well, the main difference is my contact with people. It's on a much closer basis in business, because in business, in the working situation that I had, it was just maybe one or two people, like the lawyer and the other secretaries. And you didn't get that personal.
  • [01:10:06.20] You had a certain relationship for work-- work ethics and so forth. But in ministry, you do want to become close to people. You become family. So that's the big difference.
  • [01:10:18.50] SPEAKER: Tell me about any moves you made during your working years and retirement before your decision to move to your current residence.
  • [01:10:30.06] OPAL SIMMONS: Well, I moved to my current residence because after my husband died-- he had been dead about a year. My mother and I were living-- my mother was living in a house downstairs. It was her house, and I was living upstairs.
  • [01:10:43.74] My husband died. And the neighborhood was changing. And I felt that it was time to make a move. And so my mother and I-- I asked her about moving. Did she want to sell the house and move?
  • [01:10:57.87] And she said, well, as long as we're together, I don't care where we go. So we moved. And we moved downtown, closer to downtown Detroit, because I moved back from where I really grew up and the neighborhood I grew up and the neighborhood that was referred to as Black Bottom, which is downtown east side.
  • [01:11:18.84] And we moved from there about 40-some years prior, because the city bought up that property and tore all those houses down. The expressways came in. It's called urban renewal. And people are displaced, replaced.
  • [01:11:44.97] And so we had to move and sell our home. And the hard thing about that-- the people like my mother, when they sold their homes, they were not able to get another home comparable to what they had for the money, so they had to go into debt in order to have something near to what they had, because some of the houses were still very good. But they had to move, because the city had bought that property and wanted to rebuild, with the promise that when they rebuild, that the people who had lived there would have first choice of coming back into the neighborhood.
  • [01:12:19.20] But a lot of the people had died by the time they did rebuild. And when they did rebuild, people could not afford to come back downtown. So that is how we-- but I wanted to come back downtown.
  • [01:12:36.54] And to see the difference was a big difference. And so we moved back down. Some kind of had roots there, too, although it was different. But you knew the history of it.
  • [01:12:49.74] SPEAKER: How did you come to live in your current residence that you're now--
  • [01:12:55.26] OPAL SIMMONS: Well, that was it, because of the move. No. Well, the current one now is because after my husband died, my mother and I wanted to make the move. So we moved back, which is no longer called Black Bottom, but it's back downtown.
  • [01:13:10.74] And I wanted to stay in the city of Detroit. I was born here and raised here. And I do not want to move from Detroit.
  • [01:13:18.18] SPEAKER: How do you feel about your current residence?
  • [01:13:21.54] OPAL SIMMONS: I enjoy it very much. It's a very nice neighborhood. And people are very friendly. We get along fine. So I'm very comfortable there.
  • [01:13:34.55] SPEAKER: How did family life change for you when you and/or your spouse retired and all of the children left home?
  • [01:13:45.96] OPAL SIMMONS: Well, it didn't really change, because there were fewer people in the house. But there was always a lot of people coming to our house, because my mother-- and before my grandmother died, my grandmother, my mother, they had the family home. And people always went there.
  • [01:14:08.39] And we always lived near each other, either next door or downstairs from my mom and my grandmother. So it didn't change too much, because people were always coming back to see mother and my grandmother. So we still had that close connection of family.
  • [01:14:26.30] So it changed, of course, in a sense, because they were no longer children. And they had children. They brought their children home. But the connection of family was still very close.
  • [01:14:39.95] SPEAKER: How has your life changed since your spouse passed away?
  • [01:14:44.48] OPAL SIMMONS: Very much. My spouse was the deputy mayor of the city of Detroit. And so we were constantly on-the-go, going places. And I traveled with him.
  • [01:15:00.65] And there were just things you had to belong to and do things of-- fundraisers all the time. And so it's changed quite a bit. The social part of it, for me, changed quite a bit.
  • [01:15:21.17] SPEAKER: What is a typical day like for your life currently?
  • [01:15:27.23] OPAL SIMMONS: A typical day now, especially since my mom passed in February-- and this is just August-- I've kind of been making a readjustment, because she was my whole life. And someone had to always be with my mother.
  • [01:15:42.23] And people wanted me to do something or go somewhere, and I'd say, well, I have to see about getting somebody to be with my mother. So I never could do anything without always, like you have children, making that arrangement. And so now I don't have to do that. It's just me.
  • [01:15:57.71] And I can do that. And I'm ready to say, oh, I can't, or I have to check. And then I think, no, you don't. And so that's another funny feeling, too, though.
  • [01:16:11.05] You don't have anybody that's relying on you or depending on you anymore. So it's a big change. And so I'm in that adjustment stage right now of wanting these years of my life now to be meaningful and to see, what do I really want to do with my life now at this age?
  • [01:16:32.90] I'm going to be 79 next week. And so I'm trying to think, just what do you really want to do? But I do want to enjoy my days that I have left.
  • [01:16:45.89] I don't want to do a lot of traveling, because I have done quite a bit of traveling. But I do enjoy a cruise. So I'm thinking about taking a cruise in the fall.
  • [01:16:58.16] But just enjoying each day that I have and being thankful for it. And I'm in pretty good health, so I'm very thankful. I've had a good life.
  • [01:17:09.74] SPEAKER: What does your family enjoy doing together now?
  • [01:17:14.89] OPAL SIMMONS: OK. My daughter and I are together. She is with me. And she is not that well now. She has a heart condition. And so she's not able to travel too much at this point. And her leg is bothering her.
  • [01:17:34.00] But I enjoy her company, being in house and still that belonging and having somebody. You aren't completely alone in this world. If I didn't have my daughter, it would be kind of lonely, although I have friends. But I'm speaking about immediate family. So it's nice to have my daughter there.
  • [01:17:56.32] SPEAKER: What are your personal favorite things to do for fun?
  • [01:18:00.82] OPAL SIMMONS: Dancing, eating, going out to nice restaurants. I enjoyed being pampered-- things in life.
  • [01:18:15.86] SPEAKER: Are there any special days, events, or family traditions you especially enjoy at this time in your life?
  • [01:18:24.54] OPAL SIMMONS: I truly enjoy every day. And like when holidays come around, every day is Christmas. Christmas, it's not a big deal like it used to be, because when you're younger and you have children coming around and so forth.
  • [01:18:41.70] But to me, every day is Christmas. It's a good day. It's just a good day. So I enjoy all of the holidays.
  • [01:18:54.70] SPEAKER: When thinking about your life after retirement or your kids left home, up to the present, what important social or historical events were taking place? And how did they personally affect you and your family?
  • [01:19:10.61] OPAL SIMMONS: When my children-- you said when they left home?
  • [01:19:13.42] SPEAKER: Yes.
  • [01:19:19.08] OPAL SIMMONS: No more coming in the house and saying, "Turn that radio down. It's too loud." My daughter's on the telephone, and the radio is blasting. That was over.
  • [01:19:35.10] But again, it's a void. I think because each stage of life, even with its nuisances and annoyances, it's a blessing. It means you're connected with someone.
  • [01:19:49.57] And when that's gone, if you're lucky, something else will come along to replace it, to have meaning for you. So when you look back, and it's not so bad after all. All of you laughed. I laugh, too, when I think about it.
  • [01:20:03.95] It wasn't so bad. But at the time, it was. "Turn that radio down."
  • [01:20:10.56] SPEAKER: When thinking back on your entire life, what important social historical event had the greatest impact?
  • [01:20:23.52] OPAL SIMMONS: I think-- you said social event.
  • [01:20:26.87] SPEAKER: Yes.
  • [01:20:28.00] OPAL SIMMONS: OK.
  • [01:20:29.93] SPEAKER: Social or historical.
  • [01:20:31.71] OPAL SIMMONS: OK. Historical. I'm thinking more of a historical, because, as I said, I grew up at a time there's always a war and always things like that going on-- big changes, civil rights, and all this. I remember Kennedys being killed and all. And that was such a hurtful thing.
  • [01:20:51.99] Very proud to have been in the march that Martin Luther King had here in Detroit. Walked that. Very proud of him as a man of peace. Never thought I'd live the day to see a black man be a president of the United States-- not in my day. I figured it would come, but not in my time. Very proud of that and very proud of him.
  • [01:21:20.39] So those are the big things. Those are very big things for me that have happened in history. And I just think about our fore-parents. They must be turning over in their graves, singing "hallelujah." It wasn't all in vain.
  • [01:21:39.89] But I realize that we still have a lot of work to do. And I wish we could come together more in peace and in love with everybody. I really do. And that's coming one day.
  • [01:21:54.63] SPEAKER: What family heirlooms or keepsakes do you possess?
  • [01:22:00.36] OPAL SIMMONS: I have a locket that my mom had-- a chain with a little heart on it that was very meaningful to her. I kept that. I have her ring, which is her birthstone.
  • [01:22:13.76] And I have to laugh and tell you a story about that, because when she had her first stroke about 10 years ago and we rushed her to the hospital, and the doctors told me they thought she would only have a 50/50 chance. And my daughter looked at me. She says, she doesn't look like she's going anywhere to me. So I said, me, either.
  • [01:22:36.02] So they told me to take all of her-- but this is anybody, I think, when you go to the hospital. They tell you to take their personal belongings, like the rings and things, off of them, not to keep them. So I took my mother's rings off. And I put her ring on my finger.
  • [01:22:51.71] And so when she woke up, she woke up and she looked over. And she saw me. And she looked and saw I had her ring on.
  • [01:22:57.47] She said-- I said, Carol, she's not going anywhere. you see. She said, take my ring off. Not yet. So now, when I put the ring on the other day, I said, Carol, do you think I can wear this ring, or you think Mama's going to tell me, "Take off my ring"?
  • [01:23:15.94] And she said, I don't know. Depends on how she feels. So I have her ring. Those are the two precious things.
  • [01:23:23.85] SPEAKER: Is there a special story behind the locket?
  • [01:23:28.01] OPAL SIMMONS: No. Mm-mm.
  • [01:23:30.78] SPEAKER: Thinking back over your entire life, what are you most proud of?
  • [01:23:37.94] OPAL SIMMONS: I think I'm most proud of becoming an ordained minister. It was something that I never thought would happen. I didn't go around saying, I want to be a minister. I never thought I would be a minister.
  • [01:23:51.66] I worked in the church, and I was happy with that. And when my pastor asked me about becoming a minister-- and I told you, he knew he was trying to get everything together. He was going to die.
  • [01:24:06.18] And he asked me, Opal, what do you think about becoming ordained? And I said, who, me? And he said, yes.
  • [01:24:15.58] And I said, well, now, pastor, you know I cuss. And he says, the Lord will take care of that. So I went home, and I told my husband.
  • [01:24:25.92] And my husband just laughed. He said, you? You? And I said, what's so funny?
  • [01:24:33.32] And then he said, well, you're already working in the church. And you're doing it. He said, you might as well just go to school and go to seminary and make it legal.
  • [01:24:45.48] And so after thinking about it and praying over it, I thought, Lord, can I do this? Is this me? I just didn't think my personality of being a minister, because I am very outgoing and love a good time.
  • [01:25:01.50] But that doesn't mean you don't love a good time because you're a minister. People have the wrong idea about that-- some people. And so I reconciled that with myself and my God. And I thought, OK, I think I will do this. So I've been very happy.
  • [01:25:18.15] SPEAKER: What would you say has changed most from the time you were my age until now?
  • [01:25:23.46] OPAL SIMMONS: How old are you?
  • [01:25:24.39] SPEAKER: I'm 16, going on 17.
  • [01:25:26.00] OPAL SIMMONS: OK. 16. Oh, I can remember when I was 16, now. How I've changed-- hopefully, I've matured a lot, since I'm going to be 79.
  • [01:25:38.67] But when I was 16, I graduated from high school at 16. And I thought, look out, world. Here I come. That's the attitude that I had.
  • [01:25:52.52] And I kept that attitude in life most of the time in a positive way. And I think that's why I've been so happy, because I wasn't looking for anybody to give me anything. I knew I had to work for what I got, earn it. And I've tried to do that.
  • [01:26:11.91] And I've been blessed. And it hasn't changed, because each time-- and I've had hard times. But over those hard times, I've just been blessed and just kind of picked up out of my circumstances and moved on.
  • [01:26:27.78] So it hasn't just all been real good. And I've made mistakes. But again, I've picked up and moved on.
  • [01:26:36.06] So I can't think, because each segment of my life has been a stepping stone to growth and to maturity. And I think that's the best way I could answer that. I don't know if that answers your question.
  • [01:26:54.43] SPEAKER: What advice would you give to my generation?
  • [01:26:59.01] OPAL SIMMONS: I would give the same advice that my mom and my grandmother gave to me, is to be nice, to go get all the education you can get by working hard. Be positive. Don't have the attitude that anybody owes you anything, because they don't.
  • [01:27:17.43] But you owe yourself something. And that would be my advice. Be the best you can.
  • [01:27:27.68] SPEAKER: Is there anything you would like to add that I haven't asked about?
  • [01:27:34.55] OPAL SIMMONS: Yes. I would like to add about the gray lady that I was saying yesterday. I didn't put that in. A gray lady was the person who went to the hospitals and helped either write letters or read letters to the soldiers in veterans hospitals during the war. And this was in the '50s.
  • [01:27:58.67] And I became a gray lady when I was in New York City. And I would go and do that. And I enjoyed it.
  • [01:28:03.78] So when I brought a picture of that, because that no longer exists. But it was a very helpful thing. And we called them gray ladies. That was when I was in New York. I was 19.
  • [01:28:17.18] When I came back to Detroit, I wanted to continue that. And here in my own city, Detroit, I could not be a gray lady, because I was black. They would not let us do that.
  • [01:28:29.09] And I'd say, what do you mean, I can't be-- so she said, well, if you're going to be a gray lady, you'll have to go out to the veterans hospital, which was way out of the city. And I did. And I went there.
  • [01:28:40.73] But I thought, you're so backwards here. And it hurt me. My city is backwards? This is the north.
  • [01:28:52.22] So we did what we had to do. So I went out there. But being a gray lady was a very helpful thing, too. I enjoyed that.
  • [01:29:02.50] SPEAKER: Well, that completes the last section of questions. Thank you.
  • [01:29:06.44] OPAL SIMMONS: You're welcome. Thank you.
  • [01:29:08.41] --hear me, can you?
  • [01:29:10.32] CAMERA CREW: I don't think I can.
  • [01:29:11.39] OPAL SIMMONS: Because I don't have a-- this is when I was 16. When did I graduate from here? This was from my church program that I graduated from.
  • [01:29:33.14] This is a family-- my family on my mom's side. Here I am with my grandson. Here I am with my grandmother, my mother, my daughter, myself, and my grandson-- five generations. OK. Here's one with President Clinton and my daughter. OK.
  • [01:30:18.03] This is one Sunday at church-- St. Mark's church-- I mean Fellowship Chapel, certainly after I was ordained, I think. You've been looking for yeah, these pictures of the times and stuff. OK. This is a picture of a women's day at our church. And this is Martin Luther King's daughter.
  • [01:30:49.72] Here I am at church. And sometimes in this outfit, I preach in this, also. You know Tabernacle Church here in--
  • [01:31:01.71] SPEAKER: I heard of it.
  • [01:31:03.06] CAMERA CREW: On Grand River?
  • [01:31:03.62] OPAL SIMMONS: It's Reverend Sampson. This is Reverend Sampson. I did a wedding-- he and I performed a wedding together. Right here, Reverend Sampson.
  • [01:31:24.49] This is different church activities. This is my daughter. And here I am here. And this is my mother here. OK.
  • [01:31:43.38] Here I am at six years old. I forgot how old I was at this one-- the little one. Here I am at 50 years old. Here is-- I was 13.
  • [01:31:59.12] And here, I was 21-- this one. And this is the gray lady picture. OK. And here I am with my husband in the center.
  • [01:32:18.80] And we were on a cruise. See, I got spoiled going on cruises. I think all of this is a cruise.
  • [01:32:28.86] And this is my square dance. I love to square dance, also. Here's my husband and I square dancing.
  • [01:32:36.17] So I think that kind of gets all my life, because when I was talking, I said dancing. But I didn't say square dancing. But I do regular dancing, too.
  • [01:32:45.26] And then this is the other one-- other one. The gray lady. Should I put it right here?
  • [01:32:56.30] CAMERA CREW: Yep, I can zoom in on that one.
  • [01:32:58.30] OPAL SIMMONS: OK.
  • [01:33:00.14] SPEAKER: You want me to lift it up? Oh.
  • [01:33:04.55] OPAL SIMMONS: And then this one, it's my family. You ready?
  • [01:33:12.93] CAMERA CREW: Yep.
  • [01:33:15.91] OPAL SIMMONS: This is me, my mom, and my daughter, my father, and my grandmother and my mother. And here I am again. And I think I pointed out, this is my grandson.
  • [01:33:39.23] Here's my mother and her sisters. Which one's my mother? My mom is in the middle.
  • [01:33:45.59] This is my aunt. This is the one I named after, Opal. And this is my mother's other sister, Muriel, who's her mother-- my cousin, June. So that's pretty much my life.
  • [01:34:01.78] SPEAKER: OK. Thank you.
  • [01:34:06.73] CAMERA CREW: All right.