Twyla 'Ms. T' Simpkins is a regular contributor to Chester Made as well as a master storyteller and passionate advocate for Chester.
Listen to Ms. T 's recording for Black History Month here.
Blessed with a set of awesome, learned, and aware parents—they’re Garland and Cherita Johnson—my brother, two sisters and I grew up in a very diverse culture, secure in our knowledge of their love for us and that the world could be ours to conquer if we so wanted.
My father, laughingly referred to as a founder at Asbury AME church, the second oldest Black church in Chester, had this title for his hard work and dedication, and an organization renamed for him posthumously in 2011.
My mom, the teacher and lifelong member of what I believe is the third oldest Black church in Chester, Saint Daniels, she's also known as a part of the trio of Cherita, Ev and Georgina. One of two remaining class 12 members*, she's also contributed countless hours to curtain making for the FD Jones Center, altar skirts and banners throughout the years for church affairs, and she's also the secret pal and helper of Reverend Frisby who, in charge of the sick and shut in ministry, together—she made the gifts and he did the delivering. I know this, why? Because I was sometimes one of her assistants, and when she fell ill my older sister and I did the same thing for a season or two.
*church members belong to a certain class when they join the church.
My dad, initially a blue collar worker, challenged his Sun Oil employer to successfully become a draftsman and supervisor. My mom, the constant educator, fed—literally and figuratively—many a young soul; retiring from Chester Upland School District with 45+ years of service.
I remember one morning in the mid-60s my dad called my older sister and I together saying today will probably change our lives forever. Why, you may be wondering. Why? Because he told us that with mom not going to work, to instead picket, which could mean that she could lose her job. And my brother, he was going to be protesting.
Smiling in remembrance, she picketed and kept her job and, unlike his Chester High School classmate and fellow protester, he (my brother) didn't lose a coat or a shoe but yes, he was arrested.
My parents showed us by example that hard work, belief in your convictions, and follow through of them—add tenacity and some good old fashioned stick-to-itiveness—would make the difference and success and/or failure in our efforts.
Years later I went on to Penn State University Park main campus for four years. My mom said a hesitant yes, anywhere but West Chester, and shared her story about that. Check with Miss Sarah Finley or Miss Jessie Pal to corroborate. I understood then, and I grew to understand even more so today.
When I came back to my hometown of Chester years later as a teacher, I saw the need to do similar kinds of things for my students and offer them what was offered to me through my beloved parents. And so after a 35+ year career in Chester Upland School District, this retired, award-winning teacher decided to continue in her community activism and ended up volunteering—now in year 12—at a defunct YWCA.
With her long standing interest in Black history collecting, and preservation, she was able to turn her lifelong love of those things into a library, museum, and black repository all within that former YW—now known as the 10-year-old Yes We Can Achievement and Cultural Center.
I’m Twyla Simpkins—they now call me Ms. T—and I'm the founding director of that Yes Center. So, I've shared with you the beginnings of her story, and I invite you to join in celebration and growth as she evolves. This is our story and we're sticking to it.
See what's happening at the Yes Center by visiting https://www.yescenterchester.org/