Barbara Simmons has enjoyed a lot of firsts in her life: first Black woman to graduate from the UNM School of Law and the first Black woman to pass the New Mexico Bar Exam. When she was 6 years old, she scored the highest on an aptitude test in Hereford, Texas, among students of all races.
Her family moved to Albuquerque when she was in high school and she attended UNM on a scholarship. All along the way, she made sure that more Blacks would follow in her footsteps. From correcting teachers and her Anglo classmates about Black history to helping establish the Black Studies Program (now Africana Studies) and the Black Student Union while an undergraduate student at UNM, Simmons has made her voice heard.
After earning her J.D. in 1974, she spent two years at Legal Aid in Albuquerque as a Reginald Heber Smith Fellow. During this time, she also taught undergraduate classes at UNM on the history of the Civil Rights Movement, Black American history and Black constitutional law. She was an editor at New Breed, a weekly newspaper for the Black community and was involved in the NAACP. She also served on a council for Gov. Jerry Apodaca to help eliminate racism in the New Mexico work place.
She spent 10 more years in private practice in Albuquerque before moving to Southern California, where she initially handled social security cases for developmentally disabled clients. But she had never lost a desire for a courtroom practice. When an opportunity came along, she joined a friend in a criminal law practice and for the next 20 years, Simmons handled cases as varied as jaywalking and first-degree murder.
A trip to the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta pointed her in a new direction, where she now focuses her attention: securing services for military veterans. On that trip, she saw her first cousin, with whom she had grown up. He had earned two Purple Hearts in the Vietnam War, but in 1996 he was panhandling and sleeping on the streets of Atlanta, unable to tap into services for which he qualified.
"He told me of his mental problems: flashbacks and mood swings," says Simmons. "I started inquiring about services available to him, and once he received them, 30 years after his service ended, he was able to find housing."
Back home, Simmons began visiting homeless areas, and as her cousin had predicted, most of the homeless people she met were vets. In 2003, she left her criminal practice to help connect veterans with services that could provide housing and medical treatment.
"I would hope that more people would get involved with these vets," she says. "A lot of people are coming back from the Iraq War and they will be homeless in the future if services aren't provided. This is my passion."
Last September, she returned to Albuquerque for her 35th law-school reunion, with her primary purpose to give Professor Emeritus Fred Hart a hug. As dean during her law-school years, he supported Simmons in her role as the only Black female in the student body.
"He made money available for me to travel to conferences where I could interact with other Black students and encouraged me to cultivate a Black student population at the school," she says. "I didn't want to be the last female Black law student."
These days, Simmons spends most of her social time with her three grandchildren and husband, and she enjoys traveling. As much as she likes California, she is thinking of retiring in New Mexico, where she still has family and friends.