Rest in Peace Muriel Simmons
Harvey Winje wrote in The Alley on Jan. 25 about the memorial tribute, celebration and funeral of Muriel Barnes Simmons, held Monday, Jan. 21: “In Minneapolis, scores of mourners of Muriel’s death and celebrants of Muriel’s life, having endured the subzero weather to honor Muriel and support one another, heard Messiah Lutheran Church Pastor Lee Cunningham repeat Muriel‘s oft-repeated words, ‘It’s time to move up to the next level.’ Muriel knew when the time was right and had the courage to not only move to the next level but to often take others with her and even more often inspire others to move up on their own.”
In June of 2004 Southside Pride published this profile of Muriel Simmons:
by Jacquelyn Blake
Community is where the snow cones are
|Muriel Simmons (seated) with members of her family. Photo by Jacquelyn Blake
Summer in Minneapolis is three months jam packed with community events, activities and summertime treats. The sun moves closer to the earth, melts away the winter mind-set and refuels the body and mind with energy for fun in the sun.
For many years, the Phillips neighborhood of South Minneapolis did not participate in the fun, but maintained a “winter mind-set” throughout the seasons.
Crime, violence and drugs overtook the neighborhood. The community was in complete disarray, despondent, oppressed and without regard for what summer can do for the spirit of individuals and the community. That is until social and community activist Muriel Simmons moved into the neighborhood with her coalition—her family and an old-fashioned snow cone machine.
I visited Muriel at her home on Portland Avenue South, in the Phillips neighborhood. It’s a house that had been boarded up and condemned, but is being refurbished. It’s a feature in this year’s “Parade of Homes,” an annual event inviting people to tour some of the most interesting homes in Minneapolis and St. Paul. Two of her grandsons are continuing to renovate her house she says, “One room at a time.” Transforming this house into a home is only the beginning of Muriel’s mission for the Phillips neighborhood. She’s almost single-handedly transforming the distressed and impoverished neighborhood into a safe and viable home for many to enjoy—a seemingly inconceivable feat for anyone, but Muriel is not just anyone.
Muriel grew up on the East Coast as the only child of her mother and father. At age 9, tumors began to develop in her nose, chest, arms and abdomen. Some were cancerous and some benign. She was diagnosed with “Thalassemia Minor Disease,” also known as “Coolies Minor,” when she was in her early 30s. Coolies is an inherited blood disorder that originated in the Caribbean—similar to Sickle Cell Anemia, in that the production of hemoglobin is defective, causing problems for its absorption into the red blood cells. Medications aren’t helpful and there is no cure. Muriel now has lupus, Parkinson’s disease and epilepsy, all from the cancer and tumors. She said, “I grew up believing that I could die at any time because I’d heard negative things about Coolies Disease.” She had a double radical mastectomy at age 33, and was given five to 10 years to live. Muriel will turn 65 years young on June 2, and to date she has had 26 surgeries.
When Muriel was facing her 26th surgery, one of her daughters—she has five children (two girls—one adopted, and three boys aged 36 to 45 years in age)—talked her into coming to Minneapolis to see an oncologist at the Sister Kenny Institute of Abbott Northwestern Hospital. She decided to make the move after studying the obituaries and concluding that people tend to live longer in Minnesota than they do on the East Coast. Muriel feels fortunate to have given birth to four children in the midst of battling her unstable and often debilitating health. She now has 24 grandchildren, all of whom she’s helped raise, and a couple more are on the way.
Although Muriel married, she raised her children alone, because her husband was in the military and spent the majority of his time on sea vessels. He eventually died from alcoholism. Being a military family, they frequently changed residences, and wherever Muriel resides she is active in the community. Traveling with her, as though its one of her children, is an old-fashioned snow cone machine. She makes and sells 35 flavors of snow cones at community events, which is an effective means to meet and connect with people in the neighborhood. The snow cone machine came with her to the Phillips neighborhood, as did her children upon her request.
Upon arrival to Minneapolis and before unpacking the snow cone machine, Muriel quickly stepped back into her role as community activist. She doesn’t let her physical condition determine how active she is in a community. Muriel with the help of her son Brian, whom Muriel says is her “arms” and “legs,” approached neighborhood residents and businesses, pestered politicians and police, contacted other community activists, and literally spoke to anybody who’d listen to her plan to revitalize the Phillips neighborhood. Brian acts as Muriel’s “Assistant Activist,” but like Muriel, he is a bonafide community activist himself.
As I talk with Muriel, I realize her beauty, strength, compassion for people, and passion for the community. She’s a tall woman, her hair pulled back showing the soft glow of her face—a face with only a few gentle lines that hardly illustrate the fact she’s endured hardship. Her eyes are deep and determined. Her body is erect, confident and proud. Her hands, shaking from Parkinson’s, are broad—her palms illustrate an arduous lifeline. I can imagine all the work they’ve done, including making snow cones for thousands of people over the years. Her smile is comforting—maternal, like a grandmother holding her first grandchild. She adorns herself with subtle but attractive jewelry. Muriel shows me a picture of herself when she is wearing her “locks.” In it, she depicts a congresswoman, a goddess, a descendant of Corretta Scott King. Muriel is a class act.
Muriel Simmons’ relentless efforts to rehabilitate the Phillips community led her to found and direct The Phillips West Neighborhood Association and develop important relationships with large corporations and organizations in the neighborhood. Employers such as Honeywell, Wells Fargo, Abbott Hospital, The Swedish Institute, Phillips Eye Institute, Saint Mary’s College, and groups such as The Zuhrah Shrine Center and Messiah Lutheran Church continue to sponsor events and support the community. The Shriner’s Center provides space for the annual “Winter Social” Muriel and Brian created. It began as a small get-together in her home, but when it outgrew the space, they moved it to the Messiah Lutheran Church. More than 500 people now pack into the Shriner’s Center each winter. The corporations help pay the expenses and many of their employees donate their time throughout the production.
Muriel and Brian involve themselves in many community events. Summer functions such as the Fourth of July “Art on Wheels” parade, Longfellow street fest, Richard Green Community School fundraiser, Annual Night Out gathering, and the Juneteenth festival at Theodore Wirth Park in North Minneapolis, which takes place this year on Saturday, June 19, all summon the famous snow cone machine to join the summer fun.
I had the opportunity to meet Brian’s three children—two sons and one daughter—who live with him and their grandmother. I asked them to share with me something they like about their grandmother. The consensus is that they appreciate that she always has time for them and not only allows but encourages them to share their feelings with her, and that she “walks her talk.” It is clear to me that Muriel is indeed a positive influence in her grandchildren’s lives because before they left the house, each of them kissed and hugged her, and said, “I love you, Grandma,” then proceeded to do the same with their father. When Brian and his children clear the room, Muriel confesses to me that she doesn’t make any money selling snow cones due to the expenses involved. She said, “I maintain the snow cone tradition because it brings my family together. Nothing else matters if my family isn’t together and happy.”