Furious Flower Assistant Director L. Renée collaborates with Celebrating Simms


by Megan N. Medeiros


SUMMARY: Furious Flower Assistant Director L. Renée visited two Harrisonburg high schools to offer oral history workshops for students participating in the Celebrating Simms project through their collaborative social studies and English classes.

In the Fall of 2022, L. Renée shared her experience collecting her family’s oral histories, explaining the care necessary to approach such intimate and sensitive research with students from Turner Ashby and Spotswood High Schools. As she explained some basic principles of conducting oral histories, she shared sound bites from interviews with her elders and asked students to reflect on different elements of the recordings including the speaker’s tone, pauses, or emotionally driven responses to help them better understand how to ask follow-up questions. 

“It was such an honor to work with these bright, inquisitive students and to help equip them with the tools to confidently conduct oral histories,” she said. “I really wanted them to understand the gift of being a kind of vehicle to help unlock someone else’s memories — that these memories were not just steeped in fact, but in sensory details about place and filled with characters and complex feelings, too.” 

The Celebrating Simms project, which celebrates the life of pioneering African American educator Lucy F. Simms, as well as the school named in her honor and students who attended that school in Harrisonburg, was launched in Spring 2015 by JMU professor Mollie Godfrey, Ph.D. in collaboration with Robin Lyttle, founder of the Shenandoah Valley Black Heritage Project, and JMU professor Seán McCarthy, Ph.D. simms-left-oneThe project organizers began working with Rockingham County Schools in 2022, after the group met volunteer Beau Dickenson, a Social Studies Coordinator for Rockingham County, who offered to support the development and piloting of the project in a few African American History elective courses. With support from JMU’s Research and Scholarship and the College of Education, the group was able to fund three high school teachers’ work over the summer in designing the project and then incorporating the project into their curriculum, as well as two College of Education graduate students to support the teachers in that process. Students participating in these courses will work to gather oral histories from community members that have been involved with the life and history of Lucy F. Simms and the Lucy F. Simms School (formerly Effenger Street School). 

“The teachers — Owen Longacre, Jennifer Dean, and Tim Van Schaick — did an amazing job putting together an incredibly thoughtful, well-scaffolded curriculum so that when the time came, the students would be well-prepared to have fruitful and wide-ranging conversations with former Simms school students, many of whom are now in their 70s and 80s. But we also thought it would be amazing for the students to have the chance to talk to someone who specializes in doing oral history in local African American communities before they got started. L. Renée — and her work on her own family history in Black Appalachia — immediately came to mind,” Godfrey said. 

Owen Longacre, a social studies teacher at Spotswood High School, said that L. Renée’s “work with Black Appalachia subjectivity and the collection of oral histories” was an “excellent opportunity for [the students] to learn about the power of this research method.” 

Jennifer Dean, English teacher at Turner Ashby High School, commented that "the lessons and voice L. Renée provided our students was invaluable. She brought her knowledge and passion for storytelling to our students, and she encouraged them to develop their own voices as we move forward in our oral history projects. The insight and experience she offered students was both practical and inspirational." 

In their reflections, many students referenced the impact of these lessons on their work moving forward and their excitement to be a part of such an influential project. Danita Wolmarans, a senior at Spotswood High School, said that L. Renée’s visit had been one of the most impactful experiences in her education. Wolmarans explained that L. Renée’s description of oral history stuck with her the most. “How do we properly preserve the voices of the people we are interviewing? Rather than collecting information we want to hear, we get to record raw and real conversations. Every breath, every pause, laugh, and change in voice is a piece of information we can analyze. What does this tell us about how they feel about the story,” said Wolmarans. “The amount of information and clarity she provided made me feel ready [to be a part of this project]. Nothing is more valuable than a lesson you can carry for the rest of your life.” 

simms-right-one Katelyn Lough, a senior at Turner Ashby High School, said she was most notably impacted by L. Renée showing her “a new perspective when it came to oral history and individual experiences related to the history we learn about in classrooms.” After the visit, Lough said that she was inspired to learn more about Furious Flower Poetry Center, saying that it “opened a door to something [she] may want to pursue in the future.” 

Godfrey, speaking collectively for the group behind Celebrating Simms, said: “I think [L. Renée’s] perspective as a nonfiction writer and poet and her encouragement that they think about approaching their interviews in less rigid ways contributed enormously to the students’ preparedness and the project’s success! I remember her telling me right after her visit with the students that she had encouraged them to think not just about facts, but about feelings. It was thrilling to see some of the types of questions she had suggested show up in the interviews, and to see how enriched the students’ conversations with their elders were as the result of her inspiration and guidance!”  

Moving forward, several faculty involved in the Celebrating Simms oral history project, including Godfrey; L. Renée; Leonard Richards, Ph.D.; and Mary Beth Cancienne, Ph.D. presented with Harrisonburg’s Mayor Deanna Reed at the Lemon Project Symposium at William & Mary at the end of March 2023.  

“We’re really excited to share this work with other leaders in Virginia working on the development of community-university partnerships to support Black historical recovery,” Godfrey stated. 

JMU libraries staff and graduate assistants are also currently hard at work transcribing the many interviews that local high school students have collected. The hope is for the group to share and celebrate this work with a community listening party at the Lucy F. Simms Center at the end of the spring semester.

Back to Top

Published: Monday, April 3, 2023

Last Updated: Tuesday, February 20, 2024

Related Articles