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Robert W. Simmons


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Barber Robert W. Simmons, politician and pioneer in black education, was born around 1822 at Fredericksburg, Virginia. His father, Streshley Simmons, was a free black citizen of Virginia and a veteran of the War of 1812.

While nothing is known about Simmons’s upbringing, his later work as a journalist suggests some measure of formal instruction. His livelihood, however, came from barbering. This he practiced in Parkersburg, which became his home in 1841 and where, in 1843, he married Susan King.

By 1858, Simmons was the father of nine children. His concern for his own children and other young African-Americans of Parkersburg propelled him in 1862 to take the lead in founding the Sumner School, a private school for the town’s blacks. The tuition was one dollar per month, but children whose families were unable to pay were allowed to attend free of charge. Classes initially were housed in a dilapidated army barracks. According to legend, Simmons, on horseback, had made a long and dangerous war-time trip to Washington, where he secured the building directly from President Lincoln. The fledgling institution became a landmark in the history of education, becoming West Virginia’s earliest black public school in 1866. One year later, Simmons helped to establish a black Sunday school in Parkersburg and served as its first superintendent.

Simmons was an influential Republican, and a delegate to the party’s 1872 and 1876 national conventions. As a politician, who for years controlled the local African-American vote and wielded statewide power, he received many marks of recognition during the last three decades of his life. These culminated in his appointment by President Grant as U.S. consul to Haiti, which for unknown reasons Simmons declined.

Robert W. Simmons died at his Parkersburg home on January 16, 1892. In 1999, the downtown Parkersburg post office was named Simmons Station in his honor.

Written by Ray Swick

Sources

  1. Ambler, Charles H. A History of Education in West Virginia: From Early Colonial Times to 1949. Huntington: Standard Printing & Publishing, 1951.

  2. Hardesty's Historical and Geographical Encyclopedia vol. 8. Chicago: H. H. Hardesty, 1883, Reprint, Richwood: Comstock, Hardesty West Virginia Counties, 8 vols., 1973.

  3. Children Skated at 5th and Market Sts. Parkersburg Sentinel, 9/12/1954.

  4. Death of Robert Simmons. Parkersburg Daily Sentinel, 1/16/1892.

  5. Lacy, Ellen C., great-granddaughter of Robert W. Simmons. Interview by author. 6/21/1983.