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William "Bill" Simms

William "Bill" Simms of Ottawa, Kansas, was one of three former slaves, living in Kansas, who were interviewed as part of the U.S. Works Projects Administration, Federal Writers' Project. The government program employed out-of-work writers, from 1936-1938, to interview ex-slaves.

Ottawa Herald, Wednesday, February 21, 1923, page 8Bill Simms was born into slavery near Osceola in St. Clair County, Missouri, on March 16, 1839. His master’s name was John D. Simms. (It was common for a slave to use his owner's surname). John D. Simms moved from Kentucky to  Missouri before the Civil War. Bill Simms never met his father, nor knew his father’s name, because his father belonged to a slave master who stayed in Kentucky.  The Simms plantation in Missouri raised tobacco and had about 10 slaves, including Bill's mother Minnie, his older sister Jane, and his younger brother Errick.

Bill told the interviewer, “I had an older sister, about two years older than I was. My master needed some money so he sold her, and I have never seen her since except just a time or two. ...She sold for eleven hundred dollars, a baby in her arms sold for three hundred dollars. Another sold for six hundred dollars and the other for a little less than that. My master was offered fifteen hundred dollars for me several times, but he refused to sell me, because I was considered a good husky, slave.” Newspaper articles published while Bill was living in Ottawa, Kansas, tell how Bill was able to track down his lost sister, through the churches in Texas, about twenty-two years after the war ended.

Bill Simms was a Civil War veteran who served as a teamster in both the Confederate and Union armies. He said, “When the war started, my master sent me to work for the Confederate Army. I worked most of the time for three years off and on, hauling canons [sic], driving mules, hauling ammunition, and provisions.” However, his allegiance was with the Union, and in 1863, Bill and his brother Errick ran away from the plantation to join the 25th Infantry Regiment, Missouri Volunteers, as teamsters. The brothers were at the Battle of Pea Ridge, Arkansas, under Colonel John S. Phelps Volunteer Regiment (Colored).

According to the WPA interview, Bill Simms walked to Kansas from Missouri on foot "following buffalo trail" after the war. First he worked on a farm in Lawrence, Kansas, where he stayed for two years, but when he was hired to harvest corn in the fall of 1874, "the grasshoppers ate it up first. He could not pay me for sometime. Grasshoppers were so thick you couldn’t step on the ground without stepping on about a dozen at each step.  I got my money and came to Ottawa in December 1874, about Christmas time."

Simms recounted, “I married a slave girl from Georgia. Back in Missouri, if a slave wanted to marry a woman on another plantation he had to ask the master, and if both masters agreed they were married. The man stayed at his owners, and the wife at her owners. ...If a man was a big strong man, neighboring plantation owners would ask him to come over and see his gals, hoping that he might want to marry one of them, ... When they were married and if they had children they belonged to the man who owned the woman.” Bill's wife's name was Elizabeth “Lizzie” Bolden (1846-1890). Their daughters were Mary (Mayme) F. Simms, Grace Bell Elizabeth (Simms) Butler and Fanny Simms. 

Bill Simms couldn't go to school as a boy, but he attended night school to learn how to read and write when he came to Kansas. While he was a deacon at the Ottawa African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E) Church in 1898, he helped start a night school for black youths and adults. He also made sure his daughters got an education. In 1895, Mary became the first black girl to graduate from Ottawa High School. Mary and Grace went on to graduate from the State Normal School in Emporia, Kansas and both became teachers.

Bill Simms was 97 years old at the time of the WPA interview, and he died about a year later. He was buried beside Elizabeth on December 28, 1937, in Hope Cemetery in Ottawa. A transcription of the Simms interview, along with over 2300 other slave narratives transcripts, are available on the Library of Congress website: Slave narratives from the Federal Writers Project, 1936 to 1938. For more information about the project, see this essay by former University of Kansas professor Norman Yetman.

Volunteer researcher Mark Odom used newspaper articles published in Ottawa, Kansas, as well as other resources, to both verify and flesh out Bill Simms' life story, and contributed the information for this article. Read more about his research at this link, "Ex-Slave Bill Simms."

Entry: William "Bill" Simms

Author: Kansas Historical Society

Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.

Date Created: May 2017

Date Modified: July 2017

The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.