Ada DeBlanc Simond, African-American teacher, writer, historian, and public health activist, daughter of Gilbert and Mathilde (Hebert) DeBlanc, was born in Iberia Parish, Louisiana, on November 14, 1903. Her family was descended from the eighteenth-century French explorer Louis Juchereau de St. Denis, and her parents were illiterate Catholic Creoles who spoke a French patois. Together the family raised sugarcane, soybeans, and rice on a small farm near New Iberia, Louisiana. Although she grew up in a large family, by 1907 Ada’s three older sisters had died because of whooping cough and diphtheria. In 1910 she was sent to the St. Peter Claver Boarding School in Lake Charles for a short time but soon had to return home due to a serious case of pellagra—probably a result of the poor diet that the school provided for its children. Because there were no formal schools in her hometown, she received Catholic instruction in a small school in the home of a local spinster and learned English through reading the catechism. She also practiced reading by having access to used books obtained from a traveling peddler.
In 1914 the DeBlanc family, suffering from several years of poor farm production (the result of bad weather), was forced to relocate to Austin, Texas, where their father worked in a drugstore and their mother did work as a seamstress. As a teenager, Ada DeBlanc was tasked with caring for her younger siblings, and she also worked as a housekeeper. She was only able to attend one semester of high school but supplemented this by borrowing books from Professor Laurine C. Anderson, a neighbor and family friend for whom Austin’s L. C. Anderson High School was named. In 1920 her close friend and mentor Charlie Lewis, who worked at Austin’s Samuel Huston College, allowed her to audit his classes, and by 1922 she took the equivalency tests necessary to earn diplomas from the college preparatory and business departments. Afterwards she worked for a short time as a secretary at Prairie View State Normal and Industrial College (now Prairie View A&M University) and married Aubrey Askey, an honors student she met while at Samuel Huston College. Before their divorce in 1927 they had three children together—Grace, Gilbert, and Verna Joe.
Interestingly enough, their son, Gilbert Askey, became a nationally-renowned arranger, composer, and producer for Motown Records and worked with many world famous artists, including the Four Tops, the Temptations, Gladys Knight, and Curtis Mayfield. He also earned an Academy Award nomination for his work with Diana Ross in Lady Sings the Blues (1972) and received co-credit for the discovery of the Jackson 5. Additionally, Ada’s niece, Damita Jo DeBlanc, became a well-known pop and soul singer.
In 1929 Ada DeBlanc Askey married Dr. Charles Yerwood of Austin. Against her husband’s wishes she decided to return to school and worked as a secretary at Tillotson College in exchange for free tuition. In 1934 she earned a B.S. in family life education from Tillotson and went on to teach at the Belton Colored School in Bell County for a short time. Then she earned an M.S. in home economics and child development from Iowa State University in 1936. From there she returned to Tillotson College and eventually became head of the home economics department.
Charles Yerwood died in 1940. Though upset, Ada had been inspired by her late husband to begin a career in public health, and in 1942 she became a public health representative for the Texas Tuberculosis Association. For twenty-five years she traveled across Texas and educated poor families about sanitation, nutrition, disease prevention, safety, and available medical services. She also helped recruit volunteers to form community health organizations in many of the towns and cities that she visited. During this time she spent several summers studying public health, human development, community organization, and conflict resolution at a number of prestigious graduate schools, including the University of Michigan, University of Chicago, and New York School of Social Work. In 1949 she married Luther Simond, a well-known teacher and school administrator in Austin.
In 1967 Ada Simond was forced into retirement because of her age, so she pursued a similar job working for the Texas State Department of Health. However, she was forced into retirement again in 1973, so she began volunteering for a number of local organizations, including the Travis County Health Department, Holy Cross Catholic Church, Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, and United Action for the Elderly, which was later renamed Meals on Wheels and More. Then at the request of her close friend, Judge Herman Jones, she worked from 1974 to 1977 as a bailiff in the Fifty-third District Court in Travis County. When asked in 1977 why she was not willing to retire she responded, “Old is a state of mind. When you do nothing, you become nothing. The need to be productive—give life to something—doesn’t automatically stop at age 65 or 70.”
After 1977 Simond began yet another career as a historian and writer. To encourage understanding among the children of Austin’s newly-integrated schools she published a series of six children’s books entitled Let’s Pretend: Mae Dee and Her Family (beginning with Let’s Pretend: Mae Dee and Her Family Go to Town in 1977), which told historically accurate stories of black families living in Austin in the early 1900s. In 1979 she cofounded the W. H. Passon Historical Society with the aim of promoting the history of Austin’s black community. Likewise, Simond cofounded the George Washington Carver Museum, which opened in 1980 in a historic building that was once the site of Austin’s first black library. She also collected local oral histories and contributed articles to journals such as the Southwestern Historical Quarterly. Additionally, from 1983 to 1984 she wrote a column for the Austin American-Statesman entitled, “Looking Back: A Black Focus on Austin’s Heritage.” She was a longtime member of Holy Cross Catholic Church.
During her lifetime, Ada DeBlanc Simond was considered a living legend by many of the residents of Austin and was the recipient of countless local, state, and national awards. For her literary work, she was recognized by the Texas Legislature’s Black Caucus, the Texas Association for the Study of Afro-American Life, and the Texas Historical Commission; for her commitment to human rights, she was recognized by the NAACP with the Arthur B. DeWitty Award; and her contributions as an educator were recognized by the Austin Independent School District and Huston-Tillotson College, which endowed a scholarship in her name. In 1980 she received a distinguished service award from Austin mayor Carole McClellan. The Austin city council declared November 16, 1983, as “Ada Simond Day.” She was inducted into the Texas Women’s Hall of Fame in 1986. Ada DeBlanc Simond died of a heart attack in Austin on October 22, 1989.