The life and legacy of University of New Mexico School of Law alumna and trailblazer, Barbara Brown Simmons (BA ’69, JD ‘74), was celebrated recently at the UNM Alumni Chapter, but her impact continues to resonate.

Barbara Brown graduation photo 1969
(The Mirage 1969)
Barbara Brown's undergraduate graduation photo.

Brown Simmons, who died July 14, 2022, left an indelible mark on UNM as the first Black woman to graduate from the School of Law and the first Black woman to become a member of the New Mexico State Bar. 

“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,” Brown Simmons recalled in a 2016 interview. “I was so moved because I didn’t see it coming.”

Decades later, the steps Brown Simmons made across the stage that day still echo across campus.

“As we mourn Barbara Brown Simmons’ passing, we also celebrate her life. We are so honored to have Mrs. Barbara Brown Simmons as a highly distinguished alumna of the UNM School of Law. We treasure her work and her legacy,” Camille Carey, UNM School of Law dean, said.

Alfred D. Matthewson, Dean Emeritus for the School of Law, met Brown Simmons shortly after joining the Law School faculty in 1983 and immediately recognized her impact on both the School of Law and the larger University community.

“She was definitely a difference-maker and one of the most important people in the history of UNM,” Matthewson said. “She was a tireless advocate for social justice as an undergraduate, at the law school, and in her career.”

As an undergraduate at UNM, Brown Simmons wrote “To Break the Chains,'' a proposal to establish a Black Studies Program, now known as the Africana Studies Department.

(The Daily Lobo)
The Black Student Union protests BYU, Feb. 27, 1969.

In 1969, the UNM Black Student Union planned to protest a game against Brigham Young University. The students had called for the University to sever ties with BYU because of racist beliefs the school proliferated. UNM students threw objects at the floor during the National Anthem began and then marched out with their fists in the air.

Two days after the protest, Brown Simmons was arrested for her involvement in the incident. She was eventually acquitted, but her arrest record resurfaced later when she sought admission to the State Bar.

While in law school, Brown Simmons received The Dean's Award for outstanding scholastic and political achievement. She also served as the regional director for the National Black Law Students Association, responsible for recruiting Black law students to UNM. During her time as regional director, she was able to bring the organization’s national board meeting to the UNM School of Law, where board members voted to establish what is now the Thurgood Marshall Moot Court Competition, according to Matthewson.

A strong advocate for equality, social justice and education, she influenced the community throughout her life. 

After graduation, Brown Simmons went to work as a criminal defense attorney. She said she believed everyone was entitled to fair representation.

In addition to a vibrant career of advocacy and family life, Brown Simmons found time to encourage the next generation of leaders. She mentored Brandi Stone, director of African American Student Services, when she was a student intern on campus and watched her career take shape into the director-level position she holds today.

“I’m so grateful for the opportunity to have met a living legend on our campus,” Stone said. “The ways we think about diversity, equity and inclusion on this campus were very much shaped by Ms. Barbara’s activism in the 1960s.”

Later in life, Brown Simmons was a co-founder of the UNM Alumni Association Black Alumni Chapter. In 2016, she spearheaded The UNM Black Alumni Chapter Oral History Project, which features interviews from 10 prominent figures in UNM’s history. She was also responsible for the creation of the chapter’s Trailblazer and Living Legend awards.

The Spring semester tribute event was planned by members of many of the organizations impacted by Brown Simmons including the School of Law, African American Student Services, Africana Studies and the Alumni Association Black Alumni Chapter.

Speakers included Harold Bailey, Helen Hamilton, Sam Johnson, J.D., Alfred D. Matthewson, J.D., James Lewis, Joe and Rita Powdrell, Lawrence Roybal, Charles Becknell Jr, Charles Becknell Sr, Dean Chuck Roberts, Kirsten Buick and Brandi Stone. 

The School of Law established a fund to help create an endowed scholarship in memory of Brown Simmons. Those interested can donate here.