MOUNT VERNON — In June, community members began the process of honoring Mount Vernon native Ellamae Simmons with a historical marker. Last week, Mount Vernon City Councilman Tanner Salyers learned that the Ohio History Connection approved their request for a historical marker.
Simmons was one of eight African-Americans to integrate the U.S. Army Nursing Corps in World War II. She helped integrate the dorms at The Ohio State University and was the first African-American woman to specialize in asthma, allergy and immunology in the United States. She created the Kaiser African-American Professional Organization and chronicled her life journey in her autobiography, “Overcome,” published in 2016.
“I'm very honored. I'm very pleased that Mount Vernon has thought that well of her,” said Simmons' niece, Varian Wilson, of the quest for a historical marker.
On a sunny day in late September, Wilson returned to Mount Vernon to talk with Mayor Matt Starr about her aunt, her grandpa, and her childhood.
Wilson's father, Lawrence, was Ellamae's only brother, which made for a bit of sibling rivalry.
“Ellamae was the baby, so my dad always said she was the favorite,” said Wilson. “According to her, Lawrence was the favorite because he was the only boy.”
Lawrence and Ellamae had two other sisters: Georgeanna and Rowena. Lawrence, Ellamae and Rowena were the children of Augustus Lawrence “Gus” Simmons and Ella Sophia Cooper Simmons. Georgeanna was Ella's daughter from a previous marriage.
“Gus — Grandpa — collected trash. He had two horses and a wagon,” said Wilson. “He was well respected and well known. He was also a farmer. He farmed in the south end of town.”
Some of the produce was for the family; the other produce he sold.
“If there were families that did not have food, he saw to it that they had food,” she said.
One of Wilson's memories of her grandpa is his open-air sleeping porch.
“When Grandpa first came to Mount Vernon, as my dad told me, he worked at the state hospital. It was the TB sanitarium at the time. Part of the treatment was fresh air and being outside,” explained Wilson. “I guess he got used to it. I remember piles and piles of blankets and quilts on his bed [on the sleeping porch].”
According to Wilson, there was some tension between her grandma and grandpa when it came to religion and day-to-day life. She was Seventh-day Adventist; he was very active in the AME church, attending church suppers and singing in the choir.
“He spent a lot of time working at the church. Dad remembers begging him to leave, but he was very active in his church and did his best to take care of it,” said Wilson.
Wilson recalls that her grandma would cook for her grandpa on Sundays. In addition to sweets, Wilson would find her grandpa's teeth in his breadbox. Wilson said that was part of the games she and her grandpa would play.
After graduating from Mount Vernon High School in 1936 in the top 3 percent of her class, Ellamae applied to nursing school at the Ohio State University. OSU rejected her because “we have no facilities for training colored girls in our school of nursing.”
With her lifelong dream of becoming a physician still in her mind, Ellamae went to work, working as a domestic, hair stylist, babysitter and farmer. She saved her money, and in 1937 learned about Hampton Institute, one of several historically black colleges. In September 1937, Ellamae left Mount Vernon to begin nursing school at Hampton.
“Ellamae left Mount Vernon either when I was a baby or before I was born,” said Wilson. “She would come home for visits.
“She was my favorite, so sometimes when she came, I'd go to my grandparents and stay with her,” Wilson continued. “She spent time with my parents.”
Grandpa Gus lived at 110 E. Pleasant St., five houses down from Wilson's family.
Graduating from Hampton on Sept. 23, 1940, Ellamae joined the American Red Cross, was recruited by the United States Public Health Service, and joined the Army Nurse Corps in December 1942.
In March 1944, she was assigned to Fort Des Moines Provisional Army Officer Training School in Iowa. One of eight black nurses transferred to Fort Des Moines, she later learned that the assignment was the first step toward dismantling segregation in the armed forces.
Taking advantage of the GI Bill, Ellamae applied again to Ohio State. Ten years after her initial rejection, OSU accepted her into its pre-med program. In March 1946, Ellamae became the first black woman in OSU's history to live in campus housing. Wilson recalls visiting her aunt at Baker Hall.
“I was about seven years old. I knew this was college. I didn't know what it was all about, but I knew it was something to look forward to,” she said.
Years later, Wilson's daughter, Shawna, also lived in Baker Hall while she was at OSU.
Although Ellamae was accepted into the pre-med program, OSU's College of Medicine rejected her application to medical school in 1947. At age 30, denied a position at University Hospital of Ohio State because it had “no place for Negro nurses,” she applied to and was accepted into the School of Social Work at Ohio State.
While completing her bachelor's degree at OSU, Ellamae met John Williams, an OSU med student. They wed in 1952, and, after applying to several medical schools without success, Ellamae was accepted into Meharry Medical College in 1954.
“He didn't want her to go to medical school; she got in,” said Wilson. “He had old-fashioned ideas of home and raising children. That wasn't her. It isn't me, it isn't my daughters. That was not how we were raised. You don't take a back seat.”
The couple divorced in 1958.
1959 was a significant year for the Simmons family. That was the year that Grandpa Gus died, Ellamae graduated from medical school at Howard University, and Wilson graduated from Mount Vernon High School. Wilson recalls that Ellamae came home for the funeral.
Regarding any tension between Ellamae wanting to have career goals vs. following a traditional path for women, Wilson said that Ellamae was always career oriented.
“She tried to push me toward medicine. She also tried to push my older daughter toward medicine,” said Wilson. “When I became a teenager, that's when I became aware of what she was doing.
“She used to take my two daughters to medical conventions and expose them to that career. It almost took with my older daughter,” Wilson continued. “She had an influence on my daughters and on me. My oldest daughter was very much interested in education and learning, growing up, being successful. That influence came from Ellamae, and it came from the rest of us, too.”
Completing her residency at the National Jewish Hospital in Denver in the early 1960s, Ellamae became the first African-American woman in the United States to specialize in asthma, allergy and immunology. In 1965, she moved to California, once again overcoming racial bias and becoming the first Black female physician to join the staff of Kaiser Permanente.
Wilson said the relationship between Ellamae and Dr. Ben Feingold of Kaiser Permanente was something of a love-hate relationship.
“I sat with him at the meal after [Ellamae's] funeral and had a nice conversation about her and their relationship,” said Wilson. “They very much respected her and loved her and cared about her. He said she was the first one who had the courage to rightly demand what is hers.
“She had her mind set on what she wanted to do. If she didn't do it one way, she would find another way to get it done.”
Wilson's daughter Shawna lived with Ellamae while Ellamae was at Kaiser. In later years, Shawna became Ellamae's caregiver and guardian. Shawna was also the one who took 90-year-old Ellamae to President Obama's inauguration in January 2009.
“Ellamae said, 'Did you ever think we would have a black president?' I said 'yes,'” recalled Wilson. “She said, 'I didn't. I have to be there.'”
Overcoming difficulties in dressing, maneuvering her wheelchair, and long lines, Ellamae and Shawna were taken to a reserved section at the foot of the steps of the Capitol building.
“Fortunately, people were very nice and helped Shawna,” said Wilson. “Somehow [Ellamae] ended up sitting with a group of Tuskegee Airmen. Her second husband was a Tuskegee Airman.”
Although Ellamae returned to Mount Vernon several times to visit her family and attend family reunions, she never wanted to practice medicine in Mount Vernon.
“She didn't feel this was where she belonged. She still felt race was an issue,” explained Wilson. “Her feelings may have pushed her and made her what she was. Race was against her.”
Wilson said that as a child, Ellamae's next-door neighbor was a Klansman.
“But they got along fine. Nothing ever happened, and they were good neighbors to each other,” she said.
“I grew up here,” said Wilson. “There were occasional racial issues, but basically I didn't have any problem. I had white friends. Blacks didn't like me real well because I had white friends. I was raised not to look at color.”
Wilson recalls attending 4-H camp and OSU Extension talking to her dad about Wilson being a counselor.
“They said 'we like her, but we wonder whether [campers'] parents would like her,'” she said. “My cabin was the first cabin to fill up. It didn't seem to matter.”
In her autobiography, Ellamae recounts many instances where not only the color of skin made a difference, but the shade of color.
Wilson recalls a black neighbor who did not like her as an adult because she had too many white people and light people come to visit. She said that class, race, race within race, and gender are issues that Ellamae faced and that are still being dealt with today.
“There are a lot of issues due to color and poverty,” she said. “Transportation to work, if you can get a job, being treated on the job like everybody else. There are so many issues that need to be dealt with, not just the color of skin. Housing and so many things need to be improved.”
“My grandpa paved the way for the rest of the Simmonses,” she said. “My dad was well respected. I know there were issues, but nothing that I can really say made life extremely difficult.”
Regarding the Mount Vernon of today, Wilson said, “Mount Vernon has grown and you have a different group of people.”
“Back when I was growing up we knew each other,” she said. “Strangers coming from places where things were not good, where they were being discriminated against, they are bringing those perceptions with them. You have to give people a chance, and not everybody is willing to give people a chance.”
Ellamae Simmons' autobiography, “Overcome: My Life in Pursuit of A Dream,” recounts in detail her struggles with race from her childhood in Mount Vernon to her 25-year tenure at Kaiser Permanent in California. It is available at Paragraphs Bookstore.