An edgy confrontation with white co-workers on the way home from his job at a lumber mill in Greenville, Ala., made James “Pop” Simmons wary. A menacing night visit by other white men shortly afterward put him on high alert. But it was the frightening warning from a concerned white neighbor that made Mr. Simmons hurry his wife and four children to safety before packing up and heading north.
“Jimmy, you gotta get out a town; the night riders gonna come for ya and they aim to do ya in,” his son, Jevoid Simmons, writes in “Up From Down Home.” The neighbor, whose name Mr. Simmons said he does not know, “took a serious risk simply doing right by his neighbors. With this act of humanity, our family survived.”
Pop Simmons had done something that was still unthinkable in 1952: He defied his white boss, correcting the boss that the shoddy job of which he complained was the work of someone else.
A short time after the neighbor’s warning, James Simmons had a train ticket north – destination: Rock Island, Ill., where he stayed with relatives of his wife as he earned money to bring his wife and four sons there.
Some parts of “Up From Down Home” may be familiar to friends of Mr. Simmons and fans and supporters of the images and installations that comprise Sugar Creek Folk Art. The family’s flight from Alabama to Iowa is the focal point of this book. It is a uniquely personal account – Jevoid Simmons said he wrote the book for his family – of a family whose part in the Great Migration was more forced than voluntary.
Family history is set in the social-political context of segregation and the violence it engendered and the family values of good-will and compassion.
“I wanted to document who we were, because there were so many of us [16 children],” Mr. Simmons said. “To be able to document our story for them was important to me. But also, as I began to write it, and refine it, I saw the value in doing it much more broadly and give the context: what was going on around us and the things that are happening right now with the country unreconciled.”
After nearly a year of work and savings, James Simmons was able to reunite his family. He secured a job that enabled him to purchase in 1955 a home in Davenport, Ia., that was expansive enough for the growing family – 16 children in all. Their home on Christie Street was filled with family, visitors, and neighbors; it remains in the family.
Yet the abasement and humiliation of Jim Crow were also part of the daily life in the north. James Simmons could not enter the front door of the restaurant where he worked, and Black families who wished to eat there had to enter through the back door and dine in a separate place in the back of the restaurant.
In the years that followed, the family made frequent trips back to Alabama. Jevoid Simmons recalls staying up as late as he could during the trips “down home” to Alabama. These were drive-all-night affairs, as it was too unsafe to stop other than to get gas.
The images in “Up From Down Home” echo the narrative – the confrontation with the Greenville co-workers, the timely warning from the neighbor, the segregation at the restaurant, family gatherings and reunions.
“Sugar Creek,” the name for Mr. Simmons’ art, pays homage to the people down home. “Sugar Creek is about the people, because whenever you talk to them, it’s very different. There was a sweetness, a warmth in the communication, a little sugar. In the North, things are kind of abrupt, and it’s not familial or anything like that.” And that is the genesis of Sugar Creek Folk Art, Mr. Simmons said.
Mr. Simmons says he believes stories can help people “abandon the things that they do that cause separation and understand the commonality that exists. We all have stories; I think somewhere we have to start talking to each other. And I can’t think of a better way to do that than having gatherings where people talk or share their stories. Some white ethnic groups experienced discrimination immigrating to America before being embraced/ accepted by other white folks.”
While there is commonality, he said, there is also “a great, great desire, I think, among some levels to keep the people disunited. … I think sometimes the powers that be have a vested interest in us not understanding our commonality. And that is how they keep us divided. And I think that people need to talk to understand that we’re all together. That is that’s the message I have as a 70-year-old man hoping to see the real changes that are needed if this experiment we call America is to survive.”
Mr. Simmons’ journey from Davenport, where – working as a deputy probation officer for juveniles – he met his life partner, his wife Dickelle Fonda. A promotion from an independent telephone company in Peoria brought him to Chicago. Here he began his career in employee relations, first with Northwestern Memorial Hospital and later with the Art Institute of Chicago. He retired from there in 2018 as Director of Employee Relations & Training. “A lot of good people and great art,” he says of his 17 years there.