The Rev. William James Simmons climbed aboard a nearly empty bus at Roanoke’s Greyhound terminal, and took a seat four rows from the front. He was bound for a Presbyterian church meeting in Salisbury, North Carolina.
The white driver turned around and, “in a loud, rude and threatening manner,” as a lawsuit would later claim, ordered the black preacher to leave his seat and move to the rear of the bus. The front seats were for white passengers.
“Is this the law?” Rev. Simmons asked the driver, a man named T.N. Whittington.
The driver told Simmons to get off the bus and get a refund for his ticket. Simmons complied, but he said that Greyhound “would hear from him later.”
Simmons was kicked off the bus Oct. 16, 1946. Days later, he filed a $20,000 lawsuit in U.S. District Court against the Greyhound bus company for causing him embarrassment and distress. In July 1947, he won in court, although the judgment was reduced to $25. Five months later, however, that verdict was set aside by the federal judge who had presided over the trial.
That was the end of the case, or so it appears from available records. Simmons stayed in Roanoke for six more years, pastoring Fifth Avenue Presbyterian, before moving to Nashville in 1953. His suit against Greyhound, and his initial victory, have been long-forgotten in Roanoke — that is, until Fifth Avenue’s church historian recently found newspaper clippings and internet records that detailed Simmons’ case.
And those details tell a story of how, nearly a decade before Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott in Alabama, a black preacher in Roanoke fought against segregation in the Jim Crow South and very nearly won in the 1940s.
“Rev. Simmons has sort of become a hero of mine,” said Michael Blankenship, the researcher who came upon the story while working on a biography of Simmons for the church. “I am really inspired by his bravery. When I came across all this, I thought it was significant.”
Young, dynamic and energetic
Blankenship became a member of Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church last spring and immediately set to work on researching the church’s history and organizing its archives.
“I have the research bug,” said Blankenship, who is not a professional historian but who likes genealogy and local history. “They had a church history that was a bit skimpy. I wanted to put the meat on the bones.”
He could hardly find a better subject for local research than his home church. Fifth Avenue Presbyterian is one of Roanoke’s most historic African-American churches, which traces its roots back to Roanoke’s boomtown beginnings. Founded about 1890 as a Presbyterian mission for descendants of slaves, Fifth Avenue, named for the former name of Patton Avenue where it is located, became a landmark for black families in Roanoke’s Gainsboro neighborhood. Famed educator Lucy Addison taught Sunday school there. Dr. Isaac Burrell, for whom Burrell Hospital was named, was an elder there. Roanoke-born opera singer William DuPree grew up singing in the church.
Fifth Avenue is also famous for its stained-glass window dedicated to Confederate Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson — certainly a unique architectural element in a predominantly black church. The Rev. Lylburn Liggins Downing, who helped establish the church and was the minister there for 42 years until his death in 1937, had the window installed as a tribute to Jackson, who had taught Sunday school to Downing’s enslaved parents in Lexington in the 1850s. The original church burned in 1959 but was rebuilt on the same site on Patton Avenue, complete with the Jackson window, which survived the fire.
Blankenship sifted through available historical documents at the church and then went online in search of bios of former ministers. Using websites such as newspapers.com and ancestry.com, he has been able to compile a 56-page booklet about the church. During that research, he came across the story of the Rev. William James Simmons, one of the church’s most energetic and significant ministers.
Simmons led Fifth Avenue for nearly 12 years, from Jan. 1, 1942, until Dec. 31, 1953. During his time in Roanoke, Simmons established himself as a forceful preacher, whose musical and theatrical training in New York made him a dynamic orator from the pulpit. Fifth Avenue Presbyterian added 125 new members during the first 10 months of his pastorate, according to the church’s history.
Simmons was a native of Charleston, South Carolina, who earned an undergraduate degree in philosophy from Lincoln University near Oxford, Pennsylvania. After college, he enrolled in a New Deal-era program to study and work in drama and music in New York City in the late 1930s. He enrolled at Union Theological Seminary in New York in 1938 and worked as an assistant pastor before receiving his Bachelor of Divinity Degree in 1941. He sang in church, acted in plays and even wrote a play, said his daughter Roxane Simmons Stewart.
“He was a baritone with a booming voice,” said Stewart, who was born in Roanoke in 1945 and now lives in Indianapolis, Indiana. “He had a gift for speech and a gift for writing. I have a hard copy of every sermon he ever gave.”
Simmons was just 30 years old when he and his wife, Muriel, and their young son, William Jr., came to Roanoke, and he immersed himself in the city’s religious, civic and media affairs. He led a church program on radio station WROV starting in 1946, perhaps becoming the first black person to host a Roanoke radio show. He later hosted a program on WDBJ radio, and he led the local Boy Scouts and served as dean of the Virginia Theological Seminary in Lynchburg.
With his background in fine arts, Simmons strove to improve the musical offerings for his congregation — and even for all of Roanoke. He brought a new minister of music with him, Troy Porter Gorum, a graduate of Harvard University’s School of Music, to lead music programs at Fifth Avenue. Even more significantly, Simmons used his connections to bring world-famous singer Marian Anderson to perform before 1,500 people at Roanoke’s American Legion Auditorium in 1950. Simmons also brought famed tenor and composer Roland Hayes to Roanoke in 1946.
“The cultural icons he brought to Roanoke were amazing,” Blankenship said.
Even the white government and business establishment of Roanoke were starstruck when Simmons brought famous black performers to the city. Mayor A.R. Minton presented an oversize key to the city to Anderson when she arrived at the Roanoke train station as Simmons beamed nearby, as seen in a newspaper photograph.
By then, Simmons had already taken a stand against Virginia’s entrenched segregation.
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Source: The Roanoke Times