Barbara Brown Simmons, the first Black woman to graduate from the University of New Mexico School of Law, died on July 14. She was 74 years old.
A native of Littlefield, Texas, Simmons moved to Hereford in 1954 and attended a segregated classroom in the basement of the all-White school. She moved to Amarillo three years later and attended all-Black schools. Her family later moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico, where she attended an integrated high school where racism was rampant.
After graduating from high school, Simmons enrolled at the University of New Mexico. She was a student leader who was instrumental in the formation of a Black studies program at the university.
In May 1974, Simmons received a juris doctorate from the University of New Mexico School of Law, becoming the first Black woman to graduate from the law school. “On my graduation day, when they called my name, one of the greatest honors of all was everyone in my class stood up and gave me a standing ovation. I was so moved by that because I didn’t see it coming,” Simmons said in an oral history interview conducted in 2016.
Simmons was also the first Black woman to become a member of the New Mexico State Bar. She was a co-founder of the University of New Mexico Alumni Association Black Alumni Chapter.
After serving as a criminal defense attorney for a quarter century in California, Simmons directed programs for the United Negro College Fund, with the goal of increasing students’ self-esteem and encouraging them to stay in school.