William J. Simmons: A Formerly Enslaved Man Who Became a Dentist, Writer, US Soldier, Educator, Minister and College President

Dr. David Childs, D.D., Ph.D.
Northern Kentucky University

Often when we learn about Black history the focus is on famous individuals such as Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, Maya Angelou or Malcolm X. Or the readings, curricula and media focuses on enslavement or the Civil Rights movement, and much of the positive accomplishments and Black joy is not highlighted. Even though it is important that we continue to learn more and more about these important events and notable figures, what is often missing in the study of African American history are events that take a deeper and broader look at history and/or ordinary individuals that have done extraordinary things.

More details
Rev. Dr. William J. Simmons born a slave in Charleston, S.C. and ended up President of the State University of Kentucky, which is now known as Simmons College of Kentucky. (see www.simmonscollegeky.edu)
Rev. William J. Simmons, D.D. - Simmons, Rev. William J. Men of Mark: Eminent, Progressive, and Rising. George M. Rewell & Co. 1887.
Public Domain
File:William J. Simmons.tif
Created: 1887
Rev. Dr. William J. Simmons , 1887. Public Domain.

In recognition of Black history month we would like to highlight a little-known extraordinary person. A formerly enslaved African who overcame great odds and was a part of the freedom struggle. The article will highlight the life of William Simmons. Simmons, despite being born into enslavement, received a formal education and went on to do more in four decades than most people do in a lifetime. William J. Simmons’ (1849-1890) life defies the popular narrative of the helpless enslaved person, who was powerless against the enslavers’ oppression. Eventually settling in Kentucky, he accomplished a lot in his short life, he escaped slavery, went on to serve in the US military, became a minister, an educator, dentist, author, and activist.

Simmons was born on a plantation in Charleston, South Carolina June 29, 1849. He took his surname from his enslavers Edward and Esther Simmons as was the practice of the time. Simmons became free when his mother escaped, along with his two sisters, from the plantation in Charleston when he was very young. Upon safely escaping to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, his uncle Alexander Tardiff took them in and provided a safe haven. Simmons’ Uncle was educated by the renowned AME Bishop Daniel Payne. Tardiff took the knowledge he had acquired and educated Simmons and his sisters. His education opened the door for him to accomplish many things.

At the young age of 13 he received the opportunity to serve as an apprentice to a dentist in town. In 1864 at 15 years he enlisted in the Union Army during the American Civil War. Simmons was present at the Appomattox Court House and when Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered. After the war, Simmons returned to dentistry. At the age of 18 years old he joined a White Baptist church in Bordentown, New Jersey, pastored by Reverend J. W. Custis. While attending church regularly he enrolled in Madison University (now Colgate University) and graduated in 1868. His church in New Jersey supported him through college. Desiring to continue his education, he attended Rochester and Howard University, earning his bachelor’s degree in 1873. After college, Simmons taught in Arkansas, per the advice of famed educator Horace Greeley, but returned to Washington after a short time to teach at Hillsdale School until 1874. That same year, he married Josephine Silence, and moved to Ocala, Florida and raised a family, having seven children.

Always progressive and business-minded, Simons had many accomplishments in Florida. He invested in land to grow oranges, became principal of Howard Academy’s teacher training program in Florida, served as the pastor of a church, a deputy county clerk and was also county commissioner. He even campaigned for the 19th US President Rutherford B. Hayes.

He was ordained in 1879 and moved to Lexington, Kentucky where he pastored the First Baptist Church. He and his family would live in Kentucky for the remainder of his life. One year later after moving to the Commonwealth, he became the second president of the Kentucky Normal and Theological Institute. During his tenure as president he was elected the chairman of the State Convention of Colored Men. In 1882, he became editor of the American Baptist journal, where he openly criticized both US political parties and their failure to support African American civil rights.

An ambitious man, in 1886, he organized the American National Baptist Convention and was elected president. Simmons was a champion of civil rights. Under his tenure as president, Simmons wrote a resolution to provide aid for African American refugees escaping racial violence in the South and moving to the North. A year later he published a book entitled Men of Mark: Eminent, Progressive and Rising. The volume discusses the lives of 172 prominent African-American men. He was working on a companion volume that highlighted the lives of notable African-American women before the 1900’s, when he died at the age of 40 years old in Louisville. Simmons died in his tenth year as president of the Kentucky Normal and Theological Institute. In 1918, twenty-eight years after his death in 1890, the Baptist trustees renamed the Institution Simmons College of Kentucky as a tribute to his leadership.

We are open to feedback and discussion. If you see any typos or grammatical errors please feel free to email the author and editor at the address below:

Dr. David Childs


  1. I really enjoyed reading the story of William J. Simmons. It was a good reminder that while we may hear primarily about a few famous individuals there are many ordinary people who have done great things. Simmons’ life was a great example of resilience in the face of adversity. He refused to be defined by his circumstances and his story exemplifies the power of education and opportunity in breaking the chains of oppression. His roles as a dentist, author, and educator make his story an inspiration. I think that it is important that more stories like this are told and shared. Black joy is something that doesn’t regularly get shared. We should spread all sides of the story so that we can truly appreciate the African American community and how it is part of our history as Americans.

  2. What an incredible story, like Dr. Childs mentioned he accomplished many great things in his 40 years of life that many people are unable to in their lifetime. It is truly inspiring to see the dedication and perseverance of Mr. William Simmons and to see that he was always striving to learn more and accomplish more. Uplifting Black joy and highlighting ordinary people on top of the significant figures is important when learning about Black history, our American history.

  3. More stories need to be told! There are so many incredible African Americans in history who do not have their stories told. We only get fragments of our countries history when we leave out important figures like Dr. William Simmons. We must talk about them and the adversity they faced yet still prevailed. Hopefully we can continue to integrate African American history as part of American history in our classrooms in the future. It can only deepen our understanding for the nuances and complexity of our history. Say their names and tell their stories.

  4. At the beginning of this article, Dr. Childs mentions the issue of classrooms leaving out positive accomplishments that black people experienced in history. The face of William Simmons needs to be more recognized, as he’s someone who achieved a lot during a time where the odds were against him. The book “Men of Mark,” also written by Simmons, was mentioned in this article as well. This could be utilized by anyone to expand their knowledge on black history.

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