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William J. Simmons, 1849-1890
Men of Mark: Eminent, Progressive and Rising
Cleveland, Ohio: Geo. M. Rewell, 1887.


William J. Simmons was born in Charleston, South Carolina in 1849 to slave parents, Edward and Esther Simmons. His mother escaped with him and two of his siblings when Simmons was a young child, reaching Philadelphia and eventually settling in Bordentown, New Jersey. With the aid of his uncle, Alexander Tardieu, Simmons received a basic education and became a dentist's apprentice in 1862. In 1864, when he was only fifteen years old, Simmons joined the Union Army and fought in the Civil War. He was present when General Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox in 1865. After the war he worked briefly as a dentist's assistant. Simmons converted to Christianity in 1867. Assisted by fellow members of the predominantly white Baptist church he attended, he trained for the ministry at Madison University, Rochester University, and Howard University. While studying at Howard, he taught at and soon became the principal of Hillsdale Public School. During the next several years, Simmons worked as both a teacher and a minister. He served first as pastor of a small church and later at the First Baptist Church of Lexington, Kentucky. In 1880, he became president of the Normal and Theological Institute at Louisville, Kentucky (now Simmons University). In addition to his most important literary accomplishment, Men of Mark: Eminent, Progressive and Rising (1887), Simmons is also known as the man responsible for organizing black Baptist leaders and forming the American National Baptist Convention, which is now the National Baptist Convention, U.S.A.. Simmons died of heart failure in 1890. He was survived by his wife, Josephine A. Silence and their seven children.

Simmons wrote the biographical dictionary, Men of Mark: Eminent, Progressive and Rising, while he was president of the Normal and Theological Institute at Louisville, Kentucky. He hoped that it would demonstrate to young men and women that "the Negro race is still alive, and must possess more intellectual vigor than any other section of the human family." The dictionary contains entries for 177 of the most widely- known, accomplished, and influential African American men of the nineteenth century. Politicians, educators, inventors, religious figures, authors, soldiers, and others are presented as examples to be followed by "intelligent, aspiring young people everywhere."

Works Consulted: Logan, Rayford W. and Michael R. Winston, Dictionary of American Negro Biography, New York: Norton, 1982; Melton, J. Gordon, Religious Leaders of America. A biographical guide to founders and leaders of religious bodies, churches, and spiritual groups in North America, Detroit: Gale Group, 1999.

Monique Prince

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