Tune-in to Dr. Charlie Simmons, Founder of Sojourner-Douglass College on the BlackUSA.News Morning Show on Wednesday, May 12, 2021 from 10 to 11 am EST. The show streams LIVE onFacebook.com/bmorenewsdotcom andFacebook.com/blackusanewsas well as on YouTube.com/doniglover
Charles W. Simmons was born in June 1938, in West Baltimore during the period of racial segregation and oppression. He was the second of eight children whose parents moved to Baltimore in 1936.
Simmons grew up in the all-Black Edgar Allen Poe Public Housing Project in the 800 block of West Lexington Street, about four blocks from the famous Lexington Market. The Poe Projects was one of community. Men’s and women’s clubs met to keep the projects clean and stable. Community meetings were held where young people could sit in and were encouraged to take part in discussions. There were basketball courts between the residential courtyards. There also was an assembly hall and a recreation center available to residents in the homes.
In addition to the basketball children and young people had access to the Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, Sea Scouts and local football teams.
Simmons attended segregated Phyllis Wheatley Colored School (an elementary school), Booker T. Washington Junior High School, and Frederick Douglass Senior High School where he played football.
Simmons was enterprising during these years:
“I made a wagon out of a wooden box, with skates for wheels,” he said. “I would go to the famous Lexington Market with my wagon and carry the ladies’ grocery bags from the market to their homes for small change. Residents who lived within an eight to ten block radius walked to the market almost every day because there were no refrigerators, and the small ice boxes, in use before refrigerators, did not have a lot of storage space. Later, I worked delivering the Afro-American Newspaper for Leon. He lived on Lexington Street, across the street from the projects and he was blind, but never carried a cane. He had a large route. Several boys and I worked for him. He would put his hand on your shoulder, and off we’d go delivering Afros. A few times I worked for Arabbers, street vendor who sold fruits and vegetables from a horse-drawn wagon. They usually worked on weekends and went to neighborhoods where there were no grocery stores.”
A year after graduating from Douglass, Simmons enlisted in the Marine Corps. After Boot Camp at Paris Island South Carolina, he had several assignments in Tennessee, Florida and California. However, no assignment was as exciting as his assignment with the Atomic Energy Commission in Nevada where the military was testing the atomic bomb and his assignment in Bikini in the Enewetak Atoll of the Marshall Islands where the United States tested the hydrogen bomb. Simmons was discharged from the service and came back to Baltimore in 1960. The civil rights movement was percolating and he became involved as a student at Morgan State College and Antioch College. He had little time to socialize in that he was working full time.
In 1963, Simmons and his brother, Joseph, were approached by Lionel Wilson who had recently returned from military service in Paris. He had been exposed to the culture of Paris’ famous Left Bank. Wilson told them about a bar on the corner of Washington Blvd. and Freemont Avenue that was seeking tenants for a second-floor space. Simmons remembers:
“Lionel conveyed the opportunity to Joseph and me to establish a Parisian Left Bank Room on the second floor. We converted the space to an intimate environment, dimly lit with red and white checkered table cloths with a candle globe on each table. And we play Jazz records. As our reputation grew we were joined by Benny Kearse, Vernon Welch, Orlando ‘Ray’ Pino, Leon Manker and James Hatcher-all former members of the Interracial Jazz Society. The group had formed in the 1950’s during segregation. This resulted in the club being raided several times by the Police and were forced to disband. It wasn’t long before we realized we needed a larger place.” D
In order to offer live Jazz on a regular basis these jazz lovers needed a larger facility. They relocated to Alma Holiday’s AlHo Club, located in the 2500 block of Frederick Avenue. In 1964, they adopted the name from the Parisian Left Bank Room and formed the Left Bank Jazz Society (LBJS). They had grown out of the Interracial Jazz Society. The first elected officers were Benny Kearse, president: Phil Harris, vice president; Lionel Wilson, secretary; Joseph Simmons, financial secretary; Benjamin Kimbers, treasurer; and Charles Simmons, Business Manager who would serve until the early 1980s.
At the AlHo Club they promoted local and national jazz musicians. After a few years, they outgrew the AlHo Club and moved to the Madison Ballroom in East Baltimore then to the Crystal Ballroom on North Avenue. As the audience continued to grow, they relocated to the Famous Ballroom at 1717 N. Charles Street where the Sunday afternoon concerts grew into large memorable and historic events featuring a Who’s Who of nationally acclaimed jazz artists to Baltimore. Renown jazz musicians like Kenny Burrell, Jimmy Heath, Roland Kirk, George Benson, Yusef Lateef, Freddie Hubbard, Milt Jackson, John Coltrane, Lee Morgan, Count Basie, Clifford Jordan Dizzy Gillespie, Earl (Fatha) Hines, Duke Ellington, Stan Kenton, Maynard Ferguson, Carmen McRae, Charles Lloyd, Charlie Mingus, Stan Getz, Randy Weston, Jackie McLean, Sonny Rollins, Coleman Hawkins, Wes Montgomery, Lee Morgan, George Benson, Ahmad Jamal and Woody Herman, to name a few, were showcased at the Famous Ballroom by the Left Bank Jazz Society, where they interacted intimately with their grateful audience. At its peak from 1966 to 1984, some 47 concerts were performed a year at the Famous Ballroom. The Famous Ballroom was one of the few truly integrated places in the Baltimore of the 1960s and 1970s. Some parents even brought their children who were raised in the Famous and developed a love of jazz.
The Left Bank Jazz Society produced six CD recordings, “Live at Left Bank,” culled from three decades of live performances taped by LBJS co-founder and emcee Vernon Welsh at various venues, including many from the Famous Ballroom. Saxophonist Clifford Jordan liked the ballroom so much that he got married there between sets; and Count Basie celebrated his birthday there with great fanfare and a beautiful Birthday cake. Portions of Robert Mugge’s ‘s 1980 documentary, “Sun Ra: A Joyful Noise,” were shot at the Famous Ballroom during the Left Bank’s residency there. On May 17, 1967, the world-renowned saxophonist John Coltrane’s played his last live performance for the LBJS at the Famous Ballroom. Coltrane died two months later of liver cancer at the age of 40, shocking a music community unaware of his condition.
In addition to concerts held at the Famous Ballroom, the Left Bank Jazz Society held free outdoor concerts in Columbia, Maryland; hosted a one-hour weekly jazz show on two local radio stations; sponsored jazz lectures at local colleges around the Baltimore area; published a monthly Jazz Newsletter; founded a Left Bank chapter inside the Maryland Penitentiary located at 954 Forrest Street Baltimore, MD, where they sponsored live jazz concerts, (Left Bank 954); held annual East Coast Jazz Conferences and assisted in the founding of a jazz society in Washington, DC.
Simmons’ role as Business Manager of the LBJS was to design, strategize, implement and oversee the processes and activities for increased operational programs, productivity and growth, and develop programs to produce organizational objectives. For example, Civil Right activists, Walter P. Carter was an ardent jazz enthusiast and on several occasions, Simmons would invite Walter Carter to serve as keynote speaker at a Left Bank Jazz Society forum and on a few occasions-through its concerts and events the Left Bank Jazz Society would raise funds for Walter Carter’s Civil Rights activities. This relationship kept Simmons in touch with Walter Carter.
From 1964 until 1967, Simmons worked as an Organizer and Representative of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. During that time Civil Rights activists Walter P. Carter and Sampson Green were the local civil rights leaders. At times when they were preparing to assemble a civil rights demonstration and mobilize a picket line to bring attention in support of a particular civil rights action Simmons would help them organize community residents to participate in the civil activity. And in turn, if Simmons was in the process of organizing companies where African Americans were being exploited he would call on Walter P. Carter and Sampson Green and they would mobilize civil rights activists and place a picket line outside of the company to bring attention to the Union organizing campaign. During one of the labor union campaigns where Simmons was trying to organize parking lot attendants at Baltimore’s Allright Parking company, Simmons asked Walter Carter and Sampson Green to engage civil rights workers to help him organize these employees because there were all Black parking lot attendants working there earning very low salaries, and so Simmons thought it was a civil rights issue and articulated it in that manner and asked the Civil Rights Activist to picket the parking lots. After winning the union organizing campaign of the parking lot attendants, the company filing a grievance with the National Labor relations Board asserting that Simmons used racial hatred to incite their Black employees to join the Union against the company. After hearing the case, The National Labor Relations Board ruled that Simmons was not trying to engender racial hate, rather, that Simmons was attempting to instill racial pride.
During Simmons Teamsters Union years there were a lot of interesting experiences linking civil rights and labor in the Black community, looking at the symbiotic relationship between the two struggles – that was the climate and the environment from which Sojourner-Douglass College emerged.
Antioch College President Dr. James P. Dixon, 1959-1975 encouraged by Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton, a member of the Antioch Board of Directors along with alumnae Coretta Scott King, encouraged Dr. Dixon to reach out to minority communities around the country who were interested in the development of underserved residents in their local community, and offer them the opportunity to establish an Antioch College Branch Campus to in their local area to provide for the educationally underserved. The opportunity to partner with Antioch offered two options; to establish a “Wholly-owned” or “Affiliate” Antioch Branch Campus in their State. The establishment of an “affiliate campus” indicated that there was a mutual understanding between the Antioch College administration and the local community group, seeking to establish an Antioch Branch Campus, that the branch campus would eventually “spin-off” to become an independent, local community-controlled entity. Walter P. Carter, the local Civil Rights Leader, was contacted by Coretta Scott King who informed him of the opportunity for community activist groups to establish a “community-controlled” Antioch Branch Campus in Baltimore, Maryland.
From 1967 until 1974 Simmons served as Director of Health Education and Community Organization, for the Baltimore City Health Department. Walter P. Carter contacted Simmons and informed him of the opportunity to establish an Antioch College Branch Campus. After some discussion, Carter and Simmons decided that they would mobilize the community to establish a Community Controlled College. Simmons and a coworker Allen V. Carter, Sr. discussed the opportunity and committed to developing the vision. Working with other community activist Including, Walter P. Carter, Sampson Green, Homer Favor, Chester Wickwire, John Burleigh, Rev. Marion C. Bascom and Parren J. Mitchel; Allen V. Carter, Sr.; Charles W. Simmons; Richard M. Moore; Rev. William Johnson and Marian V. Stanton established a non-profit organization – Adult Education, Inc., and began to organize the local Baltimore community around the concept of establishing a four-year community-controlled Antioch Branch Campus to work toward the goals of community self-reliance and community development to provide for the scholastic needs of adult learners in an underserved environment; primarily, those whose employment, family and community responsibilities did not allow them to pursue higher education in the traditional manner at conventional institutions through a learning model which would instill in students a “capacity for self-development and self-expression and facilitate their engagement in effective social action as members of the world community. Under the mentorship of Gwen Jones-Davis, Director of Antioch Communiversity North Minneapolis, MI they shaped the concept of an ‘affiliate’ center that would eventually spin-off to become an independent, community-controlled college. In 1972, they formed the Homestead Montebello Center of Antioch College, (HMC Antioch), an independent institution of higher education – non-profit 501(c) (3) organization.
The Homestead Montebello Center of Antioch College began with 18 students in a four room Parrish house of a former Church (where the White Parishioners had moved out and turned the church over to the Black community) on 30th and Hillen Road in Baltimore’s Homestead-Montebello community. In 1973 HMC Antioch moved into a storefront, a former office of an East Baltimore Political Officeholder, on Aisquith Street. A year later they purchased two row houses a block away; with assistance from the GI Bill and in 1975 they purchased three former school buildings from the City of Baltimore at 500 N. Caroline Street, 200 N. Central Avenue, and 249 Aisquith Street and moved to what became their permanent location. In 1980 the Homestead-Montebello Center spun-off and changed its name to Sojourner-Douglass College, honoring Sojourner Truth and Frederick Douglass. Sojourner Truth and Frederick Douglass are names to reckon with in the early struggle of African Americans to achieve freedom and justice. Both were born into slavery, Frederick Douglass on the Eastern Shore of Maryland in 1818 and Sojourner Truth in upstate New York in 1797. Both escaped from slavery and in self-realized freedom became, in their distinctive ways, catalysts for equality. Sojourner Truth emerged as a fiery preacher against slavery and for abolition and women’s suffrage. Frederick Douglass, an eloquent and passionate advocate for liberty and against the brutality and immorality of slavery, rose to leadership posts in the national government and financial circles.
Taking divergent paths to reach common ground, Sojourner Truth and Frederick Douglass remain to this day heroic figures in the continuing struggle to combat discrimination and build foundations for equal opportunity. So it was when a new college was established in Baltimore in 1980 to provide African Americans with avenues of opportunity through education it took the name of Sojourner-Douglass.
In 1984 Dr. Simmons was accepted as a member of the Omega Psi Phi, Fraternity, Pi Omega Chapter.
Sojourner-Douglass College, like its namesakes, traveled a direction out of the mainstream to reach out to prospective students whose opportunities for higher education had all but passed them by in earlier years. Situated in its academic home on Central Avenue and administrative facility on Caroline Street in Inner Harbor East Baltimore, Sojourner-Douglass constructed a curriculum to attract and retain mostly underserved older students with full-time jobs and full-time responsibilities as heads of households.
Sojourner-Douglass College is a reflection of the community. Dr. Charles W. Simmons was instrumental in applying the self-determination model that led to a fully independent four-year college.
The vision was to empower minority populations to establish their own educational institution staffed by local educators, many of whom the College would educate, and focus on realizing the unfulfilled aspirations of local populations. The mission of Sojourner-Douglass College as represented in the vision of community leaders was to create an institution of higher education that would instill in its students a desire to excel and in its graduates the knowledge and critical skills needed to not only succeed in the workplace, but also to engage in effective social action for the betterment of their communities; Assist underserved residents in the cultivation of the community development skills necessary to gain control over external forces which shape their lives; Provide a climate necessary for leadership and community development; while, Fostering greater emphasis on self-awareness, and social justice and providing the student with the opportunity to improve his/her quality of life. Dr. Simmons pointed out:
“The College adopted an “Experiential Learning” philosophy, which utilizes the curriculum as a “living curriculum.” Rather than viewing education as an end in itself, we viewed education as a means by which the community enhanced its social, economic and cultural development. The curriculum was project-oriented, providing the opportunity for the student’s learning to be tested in application. One of the highest orders of learning is experiential learning. Across the College and in the community, experiential learning allows students to synthesize academic pursuit and civic engagement. The utilization of this “clinical concept,” in which the student engages the community as a laboratory, where the solution to problems discussed are sought, has as a prime goal the development of the individual’s capacity to reflect on his community’s environment, ecology, cultural traditions, political and economic situations, etc., and relate these to the identification of its problems and possible solutions—to the benefit of both the student and the community!
Dr. Simmons, who has served as president of the College since its beginnings in 1980, noted, “All too often economics held sway over education requiring high school graduates to enter the workforce rather than enroll in college. As many age into their 30s and 40s, opportunity for advancement in their jobs or to re-enter the workforce is thwarted by the lack of a degree. Sojourner-Douglass steps in to give those whose education was interrupted earlier the opportunity to work for a degree on their own terms and in their own way. Our graduates define our success. Sojourner-Douglass College provided quality higher education to over 8,000 students and workforce training programs to over 4,000 adults, the vast majority of whom resided in Baltimore City.”
More than 6,000 men and women have graduated with degrees, with an extraordinarily 79% going on to graduate school and another 3,800 successfully completed short-term specially designed workforce training or certificate programs, providing them with a means to realize their personal and career aspirations and, equally important, fostering a renewed sense of purpose and direction.
Sojourner-Douglass College supported a significant industry in the Baltimore Metropolitan area – an enterprise that each year brought millions of dollars in federal and other outside revenues into the Baltimore Metropolitan area – an employer of hundreds of Baltimore Metropolitan area residents – a major purchaser of goods and services from businesses throughout the Baltimore Metropolitan area – and a sponsor of millions of dollars each year in student expenditures.
The economic impact of spending by Sojourner-Douglass College was not limited to the people it employ directly, or to the business activity and jobs it directly support through its spending on goods and services. The College’s employees spend part of their earnings in their home communities on housing, food, clothing, transportation and other needs; and the institutions’ suppliers and contractors similarly buy a wide range of goods and services from other businesses within the Baltimore Metropolitan area. Sojourner-Douglass College uses the IMPLAN modeling system to calculate it’s indirect and induced (or “multiplier”) effect of its spending. The College estimate that through the multiplier effect, the Colleges’ spending on payroll, purchasing indirectly generated more than $64million in additional economic output in The Baltimore Metropolitan area in fiscal year 2014 and 882 additional full-time equivalent jobs.
In addition to the Colleges’ own spending, spending by students also generates economic activity in The Baltimore Metropolitan area.
After taking these various factors into account, the College estimates that off-campus spending in The Baltimore Metropolitan area by students totaled over $10 million in fiscal year 2014. Using IMPLAN, the College estimates that this spending directly supported approximately 473 FTE jobs in the Baltimore Metropolitan area. Through the multiplier effect, off-campus student spending generated an additional $31 million in economic activity. Sojourner-Douglass College directly employed 230 people in the Baltimore Metropolitan area, with a payroll of $12 million; and through payments of $8 million to The Baltimore Metropolitan area and vendors supported 882 FTE jobs.
Through the multiplier effect, spending by Sojourner-Douglass College, by its employees, vendors, and by students indirectly generated $64 million in indirect economic activity in the Baltimore Metropolitan area. In total, Sojourner-Douglass College in its students directly and indirectly accounted for 1355 FTE jobs and $95,124,921 in output in the Baltimore Metropolitan area in FY 2014.
Sojourner-Douglass College was one of the fastest-growing institutions of higher education in Maryland, establishing Branch Campuses in Annapolis, Owings Mills, Salisbury, Cambridge and Prince Georges County. Sojourner-Douglass also established a fully accredited Branch Campus in Nassau Bahamas and partnered with local leaders to help stand up a community-controlled college in Suriname, South America.
Sojourner-Douglass College’s focus on education and training has had far-reaching benefits for mature professionals and others seeking upward and lateral mobility. Sojourner-Douglass College has served the traditionally bypassed population including adults, high school graduates, and has also offer a curriculum specifically geared towards professional development for “working adults.
Sojourner-Douglass College has served as an anchor in the community to assist residents in becoming self-sufficient through education, jobs, applied research, training, community organizing and collaborations so as to create neighborhoods that thrive and are sustainable. Dr. Simmons explains:
“When residents are empowered to transform their lives and resurrect the lives of their families this pays significant dividends when they become productive citizens, and in so, help employers in need of highly capable and self-reliant workers and part of a highly educated workforce for the nation’s knowledge-based economy.”
Dr. Simmons believes that education is a key factor in shaping the social and economic health of a community. Dr. Simmons reflected:
“We educate students to engage and exchange intellectually stimulating thoughts on matters of social, cultural, moral and economic importance and translate this knowledge into action to the benefit of the student’s community, state, nation and the world. We empower students and the community in the tradition of Sojourner Truth and Frederick Douglass, those two stalwart leaders from whom we take our name; we educate students to be visionary and ethical leaders.
Sojourner-Douglass College implemented an educational philosophy rooted in the community’s struggle for self-determination. With campuses in four Maryland counties and Nassau, Bahamas, Sojourner-Douglass College’s focus on education has had far-reaching benefits for mature professionals and others seeking upward and lateral mobility. We believe that education is a key factor in shaping the social and economic health of a community. Dr. Simmons expounds:
“We recognize that there is a need for scholars, with a different orientation who will become catalysts for social justice and resolution of the many ills disproportionately affecting poor and disenfranchised communities, America and the world. So, we developed a “Transformative Educational Model that is not only concerned with providing skills for the workplace, but is equally if not more concerned with preparing the student for the inevitability of change. With this in mind, the Transformative Model seeks to develop the individual’s ability to think critically about the human condition and the physical environment for the common good, from one generation to the next. Sojourner-Douglass College benefits its students and the communities in which it is located by requiring each student to complete an experiential learning project in the community. These projects have included work such as organizing a neighborhood youth center and establishing elderly and assisted housing programs. In numerous instances, students have spun off successful businesses such as daycare centers, consulting firms, private counseling services, etc. Sojourner-Douglass College has served as an anchor in the community to assist residents in becoming self-sufficient through education, jobs, applied research, training, community organizing and collaborations so as to create neighborhoods that thrive and are sustainable. When residents are empowered to transform their lives and resurrect the lives of their families this pays significant dividends when they become productive citizens, and in so, help employers in need of highly capable and self-reliant workers and part of a highly educated workforce for the nation’s knowledge-based economy.”
Other Sojourner-Douglass College Activities and Accomplishments Include:
Some examples of the services Sojourner-Douglass and its students provided to agencies and organizations are listed below. Examples include:
Health Services and Resources
Careers and Education