Robert W. Simmons was a barber, politician, and black education pioneer. Simmons was born in Fredericksburg, Virginia, around 1822. Streshley Simmons, his father, was a free black citizen of Virginia and a veteran of the War of 1812. Simmon’s upbringing is unknown, but his later work as a journalist suggests he had some formal education.
His main source of income, however, was barbering, which made him well-known throughout Parkersburg, West Virginia. In 1841, he moved to the city, where he met and married Susan King in 1843.
Simmons had nine children by the year 1858. His concern for his children’s education led him to establish the Sumner School, a private school for the town’s black children, in 1862. Tuition was one dollar per month, but children from low-income families were allowed to attend for free.
Classes were initially held in a dilapidated army barracks. According to legend, Simmons rode to Washington on horseback during the war and secured the building directly from President Lincoln.
In 1866, the institution made educational history by becoming West Virginia’s first black public school. Simmons became the first superintendent of a black Sunday school in Parkersburg, West Virginia, a year later.
Simmons was a powerful Republican who served as a delegate to the party’s national conventions in 1872 and 1876. During the last three decades of his life, he received numerous honors as a politician who for years controlled the local African-American vote and wielded statewide power. These culminated in President Grant appointing Simmons as US consul in Haiti, which Simmons declined.