Born a slave on June 29, 1849 in Charleston, South Carolina, as a child William J. Simmons was given freedom when one of “conflicting parties over a will” sent him, two siblings and his mother to the North.
In Bordertown, New Jersey, young Simmons apprenticed as a dentist. Then came the war. When blacks were allowed to enlist, Simmons did so, fighting with the 41st U.S. Colored Troops. This month he receives his discharge papers.
Shortly after, Simmons becomes a Christian and joins a Baptist church. Beginning his education right away, he graduates from Howard University in 1873. Teaching for several years, Simmons is then ordained as a Baptist minister in 1879, becoming a pastor in Lexington, Kentucky.
In the decades following William Simmons becomes one of the leading black Baptists in America. A prolific writer and popular public speaker, he serves as one of the highest ranking officials in the American Baptist Home Mission Society and is organizer of the National Baptist Convention, of which he serves as president from 1885 to until his death in 1890.
Sources: The Baptist Home Mission Monthly, Volumes 11-12, pp. 347-348 (link); National Baptist Convention (link); “Our History,” National Baptist Convention, Inc. USA (link); William J. Simmons, Men of Mark: Imminent, Progressive and Rising, Cleveland, Ohio: George M. Rewell, 1887 (link)