Esmerelda Simmons

Esmeralda Simmons Esquire and the Center for Law and Social Justice

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Esmeralda Simmons Esq. was born in King's County Hospital to two parents from the Caribbean. At first she lived in the Albany Projects, brand new in 1951 and home to many veterans who had served in World War II. Her father was an accountant and her mother stayed at home, though for a time she worked as a crossing guard and later she got a job as a guard at the Metropolitan Museum of Art where she got an education in art that she passed on to her children. Esmeralda had four siblings, so her mother had plenty to do. The family eventually moved to Lefferts Avenue near Sterling Street. Not all their neighbors were welcoming. Esmeralda attended Catholic schools and sometimes had a hard time as a Black girl, more from teachers and parents than fellow students. She kept her head down, avoided trouble and got good grades. These propelled her on to Hunter College and Brooklyn Law School. Later she got a Remsen Fellowship to attend Columbia where she studied Culture and Community Development.

With her law degree she landed a spate of positions in government and was often doing volunteer work at the same time. She has no shortage of energy. She clerked with Federal Judge Henry Bramwell, she got a job at the U.S Department of Civil Rights, Region 2 enforcing the Voting Rights Act, she worked for Attorney General Robert Abrams. She was involved in an election case in 1985 that ended up being argued before Thurgood Marshall. In a New York City Council District, the polling stations had been moved around in a way the seriously impeded the right to vote. The election was thrown out as a violation of the Voting Rights Act and a new election was called. As Simmons Esq. said, “Everything going on in the south today to deny Blacks the right to vote was played out in New York years before.” Around this time Simmons Esq. worked as a volunteer on voting cases and employment issues with Brooklyn politicians such as Al Vann and Major Owens. Somehow she also managed to find the time to marry and have two children.

In 1985 a dream or hers came true. She was a founder of the Center for Law and Social Justice at Medgar Evers College. The Center provided an academic setting in which solid research could be done and combined with a social agenda that could lead to positive change. She has been Director of the Center for nearly 35 years. Gradually the Center came to concentrate on three interconnected issues; these were police violence, education equity and issues related to voting rights and representation.

It was from the third interest that she began to focus on the census as an important issue. Blacks and Hispanics have been under-counted for decades and from the 1920's the situation has actually gotten worse. Things like the Rockefeller Drug Laws, the War on Drugs, unequal access to education, marginal employment, discrimination in housing and more have ripped the Black Community apart destroying individuals, families and whole communities. This has made an adversarial relationship between the government and the Black and Hispanic Communities. One result is that a letter from the government or a knock on the door will often go unanswered. This is especially the case for people with immigration issues, and the current administration is glad to exploit that situation. Adding a question about immigration status seemed directed at getting a substantial group of people not to respond to the census, yet another attempt to reduce Black representation. For the census is the basis for figuring out how many districts there will be. If the count in Black and Hispanic districts is often 40, 50 or 60% and the count in other districts is 60, 70, or 80% there will accordingly be fewer representatives and less funding. The struggle for Black representation has been long one with ups and downs. Amazingly enough, one of the bright spots was during Reconstruction when there were important amendments to the Constitution and the Union Army was present in the south to enforce the law. A long period of dark oppression followed. The 1950's and 60' was another bright spot, but the period of Draconian Drug laws and imprisonment that followed undid many of the gains. And now again through gerrymandering and a host of other devices, people in government are attacking the democratic rights of Blacks and Hispanics.

Thus it was that the Center became an organizer for a meeting of New York City Black Leadership Advisory Coalition a group of Black elected leaders determined to get as full a count as possible in 2020. Esmeralda's hope is that New York will be able to maintain is current representation of 27 (down from 45 at the peak) in the House of Representatives in the US Congress. That would mean the improved count of Black people would offset the gains in population in southern states such as Florida, North Carolina and Texas as well as California.

Simmons Esq. had been participating in this struggle for a long time, and her health is not perfect. During a phone interview, she suspended the talk while walking home. It was not until she was settled in a recliner that the interview continued. However, Simmons Esq. has all the energy of someone who has made a lifetime commitment to social justice, and she is very aware that a new generation is taking up the fight. It was a pleasure to see her sitting on a panel with Jumaane Williams, the newly elected Public Advocate in New York. Simmons Esq. is one of those people who will give whatever it takes.

– John DeWind

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