Doratha "Dodie" Smith-Simmons

As a teen, Doratha “Dodie” Smith-Simmons entered the Civil Rights Movement in New Orleans, following in the footsteps of her older sister, Dorothy Smith Venison. Simmons’ activism began as a means to gain access to The Golden Pheasant Social Club. (1) Simmons’ sister and other activists would meet at the Golden Pheasant after attending National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) meetings. In exchange for not telling their parents that her sister attended these meetings, Simmons asked sister Venison for bus fare and entry to the NAACP meetings. At the age of 14 or 15, however, Simmons ultimately joined the New Orleans chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). Simmons said she “liked what they [CORE] were doing because the NAACP wasn’t doing any direct action.” Simmons found CORE’s approach “exciting.” (2) CORE activists were leaders of non-violent civil rights protests in New Orleans. CORE organized boycotts, sit-ins, and picket lines at establishments with racist practices. Simmons became known as a “first lieutenant” to fellow CORE member and organizer, Oretha Castle Haley. (3)

As the New Orleans chapter of CORE grew in prominence, Simmons’ activism grew as well. As a teen, Simmons braved violence while she picketed and participated in sit-ins, which sometimes resulted in police arresting and jailing her. On March 27, 1964, police arrested Simmons and fellow activists outside the entrance to Loew's State Theater because they were protesting the theater's segregation policy. (4) Simmons’ activism within CORE led to her participation in the Freedom Rides. The “Freedom Riders” rode interstate buses to challenge southern states' non-enforcement of Supreme Court decisions Morgan v. Virginia (1946) and Boynton v. Virginia (1960), which made segregation on public buses unconstitutional. (5, 6) Simmons’ served as a test rider prior to the national Freedom Rides. Simmons and other CORE members rode a bus from New Orleans to McComb, Mississippi to test segregation practices of public facilities. The riders took seats at a lunch counter at the bus terminal in McComb to test the law, after which Simmons said “all hell broke loose.” (7) A mob of white people attacked the test riders and Simmons escaped to the so-called colored section of the bus terminal. From 1962 to 1963, Simmons worked with CORE to integrate hotels and Florida beaches and participated in the March on Washington. (7)

After participating in the test rides, Simmons became a trainer for CORE. She taught members how to participate in nonviolent protests. According to Simmons, CORE set up three training centers at that time, one in Nashville, Tenessee, one in Montgomery, Alabama, and one in New Orleans. (8) Eventually, Simmons shifted her focus to advocating for Black New Orleanians' voting rights by educating voters about registration tests and organizing voter drives. “For me, I wanted to be out in the field, and I guess I felt what I did was great. It was a good feeling knowing that you were able to help someone,” Simmons said. (9)

The video below, created by The Historic New Orleans Collection as part of their NOLA Resistance Oral History Project, features Simmons discussing her experiences with CORE. (10)




1130 Canal Street, New Orleans, LA