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Fri, 06.29.1849

William J. Simmons, Educator, and Minister born

Rev. William J. Simmons

*William J. Simmons was born on this date in 1849. He was an educator, minister, and college administrator.

William J. Simmons was born a slave in Charleston, South Carolina, to Edward and Esther Simmons. While William was young, his mother fled slavery with her three children, William and his two sisters, Emeline and Anna. They initially came to Philadelphia, PA, and were met by an uncle named Alexander Tardiff, who housed them, fed them, and educated them, children. Due to stemming pressures from slave traders, Tardiff relocated his extended family to Roxbury, Pennsylvania, and Chester, PA, and ultimately settled down in Bordentown, New Jersey.

From 1862 to 1864, young Simmons was an apprentice to a dentist. He served in the Union Army during the American Civil War, enlisting on September 15, 1864, and serving a one-year term. He took part in the siege of Petersburg, the Battle of Hatcher's Run, and the Battle of Appomattox Court House and was present at the surrender of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. After the war, he returned to dentistry. In 1867, he converted to Baptist and joined a white Baptist church in Bordentown that Reverend J. W. Custis pastored. The congregation helped him through college.

He attended Madison University (now Colgate University, which graduated in 1868), Rochester University, and Howard University, from which he graduated with a bachelor's degree in 1873. He worked briefly in Washington, D.C., at Hillsdale School as a student. In Hillsdale, he boarded with Smithsonian Institution employee Solomon G. Brown. After graduating, he moved to Arkansas on the advice of Horace Greeley to become a teacher there but returned to Hillsdale soon after, where he taught until June 1874. 

That summer, he married Josephine A. Silence on August 25, 1874, and moved to Ocala, Florida. The couple had seven children, Josephine Lavinia, William Johnson, Maud Marie, Amanda Moss, Mary Beatrice, John Thomas, and Gussie Lewis. In Florida, he invested in land to grow oranges, became the principal of Howard Academy's teacher training program, and served as the pastor of a church, deputy county clerk, and county commissioner. He campaigned for the Republican Rutherford B. Hayes.

He served there until 1879. He was ordained that year and 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, where he worked for a decade. The school was eventually renamed the State University of Louisville due to the school's progression under his tenure to Simmons College of Kentucky. In Kentucky, he was elected for several years as the chairman of the State Convention of Colored Men.

On September 29, 1882, he was elected editor of the journal the American Baptist, where he criticized the failures of both political parties to support Blacks in their civil rights and progress. He was also president of the American Baptist Company. in 1886 he was elected president of the Colored Press Association. In 1883, Simmons organized the Baptist Women's Educational Convention, and in 1884, Blanche Bruce appointed Simmons commissioner for the state of Kentucky at the 1884 World's Fair in New Orleans. In 1886, he organized and was elected president of the American National Baptist Convention.

The convention was a call for Black Baptist unity led by Richard DeBaptiste and featured notable presentations. In 1889 in Indianapolis, Simmons was a leader at the American National Baptist Convention and wrote a resolution to provide aid for Blacks fleeing violence in the South and moving to the North. Simmons received an honorary master's degree from Howard University in 1881 and an honorary Doctorate from Wilberforce University in 1885.

In 1887, he published a book entitled Men of Mark: Eminent, Progressive, and Rising, which highlights the lives of 172 prominent black men while serving as the school's president. He was working on a sister edition of the title that would highlight the lives and accomplishments of prominent pre-1900 Black women but unfortunately died before its completion. He died on October 30, 1890, in Louisville, Kentucky.

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