How Enfield’s leader almost didn’t happen

Enfield Mayor Barbara Simmons, left, with town clerk Jannie Burnette at Enfield Town Hall.

STORY BY JACQUELINE HOUGH  

PHOTOGRAPHS BY LES ATKINS

 

Barbara Simmons becoming mayor of Enfield almost didn’t happen. “When I was first asked 12 years ago (to run for town commissioner), I turned it down and told them I was busy,” she said. 

Later she was asked two more times for mayor. Each time, she made it clear she didn’t know anything about politics. But the fourth time two years ago, when she was asked — something felt different. 

She talked with her husband of nearly 43 years, Jeremiah, who said he would support her if she ran.

“I started praying about it. There was never a moment of ‘Don’t do it. It was, you can do it.’”

She thought about it until the last day to file her candidacy. She was at Lea & Pope Funeral Home in Enfield, where she works part-time. Her husband called to remind her it was 11:30 a.m. and filing ended at noon. She left the funeral home at 11:45 a.m. and got there at 11:58 a.m. “I signed in and the rest is history,” Simmons, 66, said with a laugh. 

Her goals as mayor have been simple. “I treat the citizens fair and am honest with them,” she said.

Simmons noticed when she first took office the town wasn’t working together. She encourages citizens to come to the meetings, which are 7 p.m. on the third Monday of each month.

“It’s not about me with my chest sticking out saying, ‘I’m the mayor,’” Simmons said. “It will take us all. I may not answer all of your questions and needs, but I will be there for you.”

As one of three siblings raised on a farm in Halifax County, Simmons has always been determined to move forward.

“For me, life has not been a bouquet of roses, but with God my life has been very rewarding,” she said. “What he has for me is for me.”

After graduation, she worked at Jay Vee Brand Sewing Plant in Enfield. Simmons wanted more, so later she got a job as a teacher assistant with Clemon Williamson.

“I admire him today for instilling in me that I could do better and be whatever I want to be,” she said.

Simmons is the only one of her siblings to go to college. She received an associate’s from Halifax Community College, a bachelor’s in elementary education from Shaw University in Raleigh, classes from East Carolina University in Greenville and N.C. Wesleyan College in Rocky Mount and later received a certification in Exceptional Children kindergarten through 12th grade from St. Paul College in Virginia.

It was done while working full-time and raising four children — Demeatrice, Jerry, Brian and De’Shonda. 

She graduated from college the same year as her son Brian.

“I learned at an early age that God’s word is true,” she said. “Jesus said, ‘With men, this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.’ (Matthew 19:26).”

Brian Simmons died in a car wreck on Jan. 30, 2006, at the age of 27. The family created an annual scholarship in his memory to help students further their education.

“God is still blessing through the help of family and friends. We just awarded our fourth annual scholarship,” she said. Simmons has six grandchildren. 

A woman of strong Christian faith, it was that faith which kept her going during the town’s recent devastation from Hurricane Irene in August.

As she maneuvered around the streets of the town of 2,300, she saw several trees uprooted, homes damaged and people without electricity on the morning of Aug. 27.

“I began to realize we had a problem,” she said. “We had a mess out here.” And then the calls started.

In her two years as mayor, this was one of the biggest things the town had experienced. She drove around the town twice that morning in her husband’s truck. 

She would stop and talk with residents, as they surveyed the damage.

Simmons admits to being through quite a few storms, but Hurricane Irene was different.

For her it was not only how much the storm took everyone by surprise, but also the fact she, as mayor, had the responsibility of the town on her shoulders.

“Enfield was blessed,” she said. “Everyone survived and lost a lot, but those are material things.” 

Simmons is proud of the town and its citizens. “This is home for me,” she said.

In the past, Enfield has done well and Simmons would like to see it return to those days.

“I believe it can be better. We can bring it back,” she said.

It bothers her to see young people walking the streets with no jobs or a real purpose.

“If we could get some jobs here, it would make a real difference,” Simmons said.

And she is quick to point out that being mayor is not a one-woman show. She credits the town employees as an asset. She said Town Clerk Jannie Burnette has been her right hand.

Burnette has worked for the town for ll years and is a native just like Simmons.

“I believe she wants the best for all of the people of our town. To have growth, change must occur,” Burnette said. 

“As an employee of my hometown, I hope I am a part of those good changes that can help opportunities come to Enfield. I plan to continue working with Mayor Simmons and the board.”

In addition to being mayor, Simmons also volunteers at Inborden Elementary School. She is a member of St. Paul Baptist Church in Enfield, where she serves as advisor of Junior Ushers’ Ministry and financial secretary under the leadership of Pastor Danny Ellis.

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