Joseph Simpkins Simmons
Soldier, Teacher, Husband, Father, Friend, Christian
Joseph Simmons was born on November 25, 1919, in Holly Springs, Mississippi to Robert L. and Nona Buford Simmons, who had married and relocated earlier that year from their native Oxford, Mississippi to sharecrop. Joseph was the first of six children born to Nona and Robert, and the 6th of 13 children born to Robert, whose first wife, Nellie Webb, had died just 2 years prior, shortly after giving birth to their fifth child.
The rhythm of this family’s life, like so many others in the region, was governed by that of the cotton crop. Sharecropping families like Joseph’s depended upon the labor of all family members, including children, to meet their obligations. They sent their children to school only between the first week of January and the last Friday in April, when planting began anew.
Between 1922 and 1929, Joseph and his family moved several times, first to Forrest City, Arkansas and then to a series of towns in Mississippi, in or on the edge of the delta — Banks, Eudora, and later Robinsonville, where the family worked for Richard Leatherman on the Abbay & Leatherman plantation, one of the oldest and largest cotton operations in Mississippi. It was there, at age 9, that Joseph first picked 100 pounds of cotton in a single day. During those years, Joseph was able to begin his education in a schoolhouse funded by the philanthropist Julius Rosenwald, a co-founder of Sears Roebuck. The family remained in Tunica County until 1935, during which time the industrious young Joseph also delivered newspapers on a 25-mile route in a horse-drawn cart.
In 1939, Joseph and his family moved to Shelby County, Tennessee where he was able to attend Geeter, a segregated school also funded by the Rosenwald Foundation and built on land donated by Jack Geeter, a local black landowner. Joseph began his time at Geeter as a 20-year-old 8th grader. In May 1941, he entered the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC); he attended camps in Bay Springs, Gulfport, and West Point, Mississippi. Joseph learned skills including typing, Morse code, and carpentry. Shortly after the United States declared war on Japan after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Joseph was drafted into the U.S. Army. He began his military service at Fort Huachuca, Arizona on May 25, 1942 and went on to serve in the Pacific theater in the Solomon Islands. Joseph rose quickly to the rank of 1st Sergeant in the all-black 93rd Battalion (Blue Helmets). He served until January 1946 and returned to Geeter as a 12th grader, obtaining course credit for his military experience. After graduating later that year, Joseph matriculated at Tennessee Agricultural and Industrial College (now TSU) where he was able to enroll on the G.I. Bill. He became a member of Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity and graduated with a degree in agriculture in 1950.
Immediately after college, Joseph supported his family doing odd jobs, including mowing grass. With the help of one of his white customers, he secured an interview with W. Percy McDonald, chairman of the board of Shelby County Schools; this resulted in his return to Geeter as a 5th grade teacher, working under the legendary Dr. Joseph Falls and Professor Montee Falls. Joseph taught there until he was appointed principal at Arlington Elementary in 1957. He later served as principal of Neshoba Jr. High and, after obtaining his master’s degree in education in 1965, at Capleville (K-12). His final assignment was as principal at White’s Chapel Elementary from which he retired in 1984.
Joseph pursued numerous causes and passions outside his career in education. He was active in the Baptist faith, becoming ordained as a minister in 1961. He is the longest-serving assistant pastor at New Little Rock Baptist Church in Memphis. He served as a volunteer on the Shelby County Work Release Review Board and in committee positions with the Memphis Chapter of the TSU Alumni Association, the Memphis Chapter of the American Institute of Parliamentarians, the Memphis Chapter of the NEA, and the NAACP Memphis Chapter.
Joseph and his wife Dorothy Anderson Simmons, whom he met as a schoolmate at Geeter High, raised six children: Evelyn, Valerie, Chris, Bryan, Alexis, and Dara. Together they have contributed to their community in many capacities, from poll watching to service as PTA volunteers at each of their children’s schools.
Joseph Simmons was an exemplary father, husband, neighbor, teacher, counselor, and friend, true to the motto of his high school alma mater: Peace and Love to Everyone.
(At his 100th Birthday Party, November 29, 2019)