Parkinson’s disease doesn’t slow his fight for equality

July 13, 2014
George Simmons, president of the Monongahela branch of the NAACP, is shown with books he once read to his grandfather each night. Simmons went on to be a champion for human rights and was the 2014 recipient of the Human Rights Award given by the Washington branch of the NAACP. - Karen Mansfield / Observer-Reporter Order a Print

MONONGAHELA – From a very young age, growing up in Monongahela, George Simmons was taught the importance of education and equality.

Every night, Simmons read to his grandfather, business owner Simeon Simmons, from the newspaper, the Bible and books like “Evidence of Progress Among Colored People” and “Progression of the Race in the United States and Canada.”

Simmons, 72, who would go on to serve as regional director with the state Human Relations Commission, often sat on his grandfather’s lap and listened to Gabriel Heatter, the radio news commentator famous for his uplifting broadcasts during World War II and his catch phrase, “There’s good news tonight.”

“That’s where I got my fascination with World War II and the Korean War, from listening to Heatter with my grandfather,” said Simmons, who graduated from California University of Pennsylvania with a degree in social studies.

“My whole family had an influence on me. My dad was a schoolteacher and a machinist, and he was very sensitive to doing the right thing, behaving yourself. My grandfather was an advocate, a visionary,” said Simmons.

At the NAACP Washington Branch’s Human Rights Award Banquet in May, where he was presented with that award, Simmons recounted the time when he was in fourth grade and Simeon, slowed by Parkinson’s disease and poor eyesight, marched to his elementary school because Simmons’ teacher didn’t believe his story that his great-grandfather, Jacob Simmons, served as a musician in the 32nd Regiment of the United States Colored Infantry during the Civil War.

His grandfather brought along papers proving Simmons was telling the truth, climbed the steps to the school, showed them to the principal and went home, worn out but vindicated.

Simmons sometimes carries with him a miniature replica of a Liberty Bell-sized bell his grandfather cast to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. It is one of many replicas Simeon made from babbit, a soft metal, and gave away.

The original bell was presented to Bethel AME Church in Philadelphia in 1913, where it remained until it was melted down for bullets during World War I.

“There was tremendous discrimination in 1913 and my grandfather wanted to have a symbol acknowledging their freedom for 50 years, so he made the bell,” said Simmons. “Ironically, it was melted down and used for the freedom of Europe, but at the same time it was a symbol of freedom of people from oppression here in the United States.”

These days Simmons, who has spent his lifetime fighting for human rights, is battling another foe: Parkinson’s disease.

He was diagnosed with the medical condition in 2000, and takes medication daily to help alleviate his symptoms.

Simmons said he is used to physical challenges. As a child, Simmons suffered from double vision and was placed in a slow readers group. Two operations did not fix his vision, and he compensated by becoming a keen listener.

“I absorbed what I heard. I mastered geometry by memorizing all the theorems,” said Simmons. “The important thing is to learn as much as you can, however you can.”

Simmons, who still lives in Monongahela, taught at the Youth Development Center in Canonsburg for two years before he went to work as a job developer in the Urban League of Pittsburgh. He served as a special assistant to then-Mayor Pete Flaherty and worked with contract compliance for the model cities program, a federal subsidies program for the rehabilitation of blighted urban areas.

In 1974, he was hired as regional director of the state Human Relations Commission, where he would continue his work enforcing state and federal laws to prohibit discrimination.

Parkinson’s has changed his outlook on his work.

“The thing you have to live with is you have to put your successes and failures in perspective because in every failure there’s a little success and in every success there’s a little failure. The biggest thing for me was being in a position to help,” said Simmons. “My biggest disappointments are some things I wasn’t able to consummate, in race relationships but more so in human relations, both personal and larger.”

The father of three adult daughters and a proud grandfather, Simmons plans to continue his pursuit of human rights, and said communities need to work together to address many problems facing the country.

“In this country, we’re our own worst enemy, We face a lot of challenges. Drugs have gone from urban centers to suburban centers. When our forefathers said we had right to bear arms, they didn’t anticipate people indiscriminately shooting each other. We don’t have jobs, and our biggest industry is the prison industry. We have kids who can’t script write, who can’t add without a computer, who walk around with music in one ear and cellphones in the other. We’re polluting the air with carcinogens,” said Simmons. “We need to look at our past, evaluate where we are now and ask ourselves what we see for our future. We’ve made progress, but there’s a lot of work to do.”

Karen Mansfield is an award-winning journalist and mom of five who has been a staff writer for the Observer-Reporter since 1988. She enjoys reading, the Pittsburgh Steelers, a good glass of wine and nice people.

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