Rev. Dr. William J. Simmons

Setting out last week to glorify Lucy Wilmot Smith, the unheralded journalist and suffragette, I stumbled on William J. Simmons. Okay, he was only a little bit better known than Smith, and accomplished considerably more, but the intersection of their lives was mutually indispensable. Smith, as readers may recall, became Simmons’s private secretary, and later, through his recommendation, was able to launch her prominence in journalism.

William J. Simmons, born into slavery on June 29, 1849, should not be confused with a white namesake affiliated with the Ku Klux Klan. In fact, there is a plethora of information to set them apart, none more notably than Simmons’s renowned academic and anti-slavery commitment. His advocacy against slavery possibly stemmed from his mother, who, when he was very young, took him and his two sisters from Charleston, South Carolina, to Philadelphia. For a brief spell, they resided there with Alexander Tardiff, an uncle, who later relocated to New Jersey, where he began educating the children.

For two years beginning in 1862, Simmons served as an apprentice to a dentist. Thereafter, he served in the Union Army for one year, taking part in several major battles, and was present when Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered. After the war, he returned to dentistry and in 1867, he converted to Baptist and joined a white Baptist church, pastored by Rev. J.W. Custis. Through this congregation, he was able to attend Madison University, now Colgate University, from which he graduated in 1868.

In 1873, Simmons received his bachelor’s degree from Howard University. On the advice of Horace Greeley, he moved to Arkansas and began his teaching career. A year later, he married Josephine Silence and they moved to Florida. Together, they had seven children. He began harvesting oranges and later became principal of Howard Academy’s teaching training program and also pastored a church. When Rutherford B. Hayes began his bid for the presidency, Simmons campaigned on his behalf.

Two years later, at the State Convention of Colored Men of Kentucky, his reputation was greatly enhanced by a resounding speech, in which he declared: “Fellow citizens, When a free people, living in a body politic, feel that the laws are unjustly administered to them; that discriminations are openly made; that various subterfuges and legal technicalities are constantly used to deprive them of the enjoyment of those rights and immunities belonging to the humblest citizen; when the courts become no refuge for the outraged, and when a sentiment is not found sufficient to do them justice, it becomes their bounden duty to protest against such a state of affairs. To do less than vigorously and earnestly enter our protest is to cringe like hounds before masters, and to show that we are not fit for freedom. We are robbed by some of the railroad companies who take our first-class fares and then we are driven into smoking cars, and, if we demur, are cursed and roughly handled. Our women have been beaten by brutal brakemen, and in many cases left to ride on the platforms at the risk of life and limb. We are tried in courts controlled entirely by white men, and no colored man sits on a Kentucky jury. This seems no mere accident, but a determined effort to exclude us from fair trials and put us at the mercy of our enemies, from the judge down to the vilest suborned witness.

“When charged with grave offenses,” he continued, “the jail is mobbed, and the accused taken out and hanged; and out of the hundreds of such cases since the war, not a single high-handed murderer has been ever brought before a court to answer. Colored men have been deliberately murdered, and few if any murderers have been punished by the law. Indecent haste to free the criminal in such cases has made the trial a farce too ridiculous to be called more than a puppet show. The penitentiary is full of our race, who are sent there by wicked and malicious persecutors, and unjust sentences dealt out by judges, who deem a colored criminal fit only for the severest and longest sentences for trivial offenses. In all departments of the State we are systematically deprived of recognition, except in menial positions. In our metropolitan city, and even cities of lesser note, we are not considered for the appointments in fire companies, police force, notary public, etc. In fact, we are the ruled class and have no share in the government.”

After being ordained in 1879, Simmons moved to Lexington, Kentucky, where he pastored the First Baptist Church. The following year, he became the second president of the Kentucky Normal and Theological Institute, serving there for 10 years. The school would eventually be named Simmons College of Kentucky in his honor.

In 1881, he acquired a master’s degree from Howard University and an honorary doctorate from Wilberforce University.

Simmons soon extended his political affairs as chair of the State Convention of Colored Men. In 1882, he was elected editor of the journal The American Baptist, taking exception to the publication’s failure to be more involved and demanding in Black progress and civil rights. (As readers may recall, he soon recruited Smith to write for the journal.) 

Simmons was also president of the American Baptist Company and in 1886, defeated T. Thomas Fortune as president of the Colored Press Association. A year later, he organized the Baptist Women’s Educational Convention, and in 1884, he was appointed commissioner for the state of Kentucky at the 1884 World’s Fair in New Orleans.

In 1886, when the American National Baptist Convention was founded, Simmons was elected president. Three years later, he was the leader at the group’s convention and composed a resolution to provide aid for African Americans fleeing violence in the South. He was the publisher of Men of Mark: Eminent, Progressive and Rising in 1887, in which he is featured along with 172 other distinguished Black men. 

Simmons was working on a companion publication devoted to Black women when he died on October 30, 1890, in Louisville, Kentucky. 

Find out more
There is an extensive account of his life and legacy in the Men of Mark publication authored by the noted Henry McNeal Turner.

It is not known how far along he was with the sister-companion of Men Of Mark, but if anything like the predecessor it would have been a remarkable addition to the African American canon.

Place in context
Simmons’s productive life stretched across most of the nineteenth century and he was a major participant in many of the historic moments, including the Civil War. 

This week in Black history
March 6, 1857: The Supreme Court issued the Dred Scott decision, claiming that Black Americans had no right to citizenship. 

March 7, 1965: “Bloody Sunday,” when Black marchers in Selma were brutally attacked by state troopers. 

March 8, 1964: Malcolm X, upon returning from Mecca, leaves the Nation of Islam. 

Dred Scott decision by U.S. Supreme Court (1857)
Dred Scott

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