"Suppose You Really Knew Your Story?" Roscoe Simmons, Evocative Critic of Confederate Commemoration

Roscoe Simmons was born in Mississippi in 1881.[1] Through the influence of his uncle—the prominent Black intellectual Booker T. Washington—Simmons was able to secure a position in the office of a senator at the young age of 12. He studied at the Tuskegee Institute and began his career as a journalist and political activist after graduating in 1899.[2] In addition to serving as an advisor to three different presidents, he wrote a popular column for the Chicago Defender and, later, the Chicago Tribune.[3] At the time of his death in 1951, the St. Paul Recorder wrote that Roscoe was “one of the early effective columnists for the Chicago Defender when that paper reigned supreme as THE Negro paper,” noting that “Simmons added to his prestige by a history packed column which was avidly read by the Defender’s thousands of readers.”[4]

As a journalist and cultural commentator, Simmons was deeply interested in the impact of monuments on society. Some of his earliest work on this subject appeared in 1922 with the publication of a series of articles on commemorations of Booker T. Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt.[5] These articles saw him responding to critics (all white Southerners with presumed Confederate sympathies) whose hostility to the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. (for instance) was characterized as willful refusal to face the truth about the CSA. The attitude of Confederate sympathizers, in Simmons’ view, was, in essence, “We will teach how badly Lincoln treated us in our history: our children shall not be allowed to forget.”[6] Simmons was not just interested in historical facts, then, but in how history gets told and retold.

The following year, Simmons attacked the Confederate monument in progress at Stone Mountain.[7] “Get your history out,” he implored his readers, “turn to the story of the Rebellion, get over into the middle of that story and read.”[8] Simmons quoted the white Baptist minister M. Ashby Jones, who wrote:

The hand of God forced Stone Mountain up from the bowels of earth in the dawn of creation so that the civilization of the South today might write upon its imperishable side the record of its ideals, a record for posterity to read through all the ages to come.[9]

To which Simmons responded, sharply:

Very pretty, but don’t let that worry you. Whatever may be written on the side of Stone Mountain will not disturb the Emancipation Proclamation. In this greatest of all natural memorials the “record of the South’s ideals” the sculptor may carve. You will go there and read, study, think. What is NOT written will be more important to you, to country, to the future than what is written. Liberty will say, as you stand under her winds looking upon the picture: ‘See the faces of those who struggled against you, but indulge no regrets. Though I struggled for you, and won, my picture is not there, but you will find it in the hearts of men.’ Then you will clap your hands.[10]

In 1924, Simmons covered the colossal obelisk being raised at Jefferson Davis’ place of birth in Kentucky.[11] The monument, for Simmons, was a “reminder of a great intellect, a lost cause, the weakness of human judgment, the hand of God.”[12] He noted that if Davis’ government had succeeded in the 1860s, Simmons and other Black leaders would almost certainly have been denied the educational opportunities that had brought them to their station in life—there would be “no pen in this writer’s hand, no place for him to do much ‘speaking,’ no time for you to read.”[13]

Simmons’ style in pieces such as this is remarkably diplomatic, alternately complimenting and condemning Davis. This measured tone may express the difficulties of openly opposing white supremacy in the 1920s—in both the South and the North. Nevertheless, Simmons opens an unmistakable line of criticism of Davis and all efforts to commemorate him as implicitly rejecting Black dignity and Black advancement.

Several years later the Afro-American published an op-ed by Simmons, this one covering the dedication of a monument honoring Alexander H. Stephens, vice-president of the Confederacy, in Statuary Hall at the US Capitol. Simmons responded with passion to the parade of white men, young and old, attired in outmoded uniforms, representing Georgia:

So Georgia, unable to march down Pennsylvania avenue behind Stephens in the flesh, marched down the Way of Liberty behind his memory. Are not Southern Americans determined? Learn from them endurance, purpose, patience. First, you have Confederate flags returned: then you see the vice president of the Confederacy honored in the Capitol he wanted to tear down.[14]

Simmons went on to contrast Stephens with famed Black World War I hero and politician Henry Lincoln Johnson.[15] Only when both Johnson and Stephens are commemorated in the Capitol, he wrote, could there also be a monument to Johnson in Atlanta: “So life runs. Stephens in Washington and Lincoln Johnson in Washington would mean a united country and a UNITED PEOPLE. Faith removes mountins [sic].”[16]

In a 1923 editorial, Simmons turned his attention to Confederate veteran reunions and Confederate Memorial Day. Once again, he noted that Confederate commemoration was being used to offer a decidedly slanted view of history:

Suppose you really knew your story and could tell it to the children? Suppose our white people knew it and would tell it to their children? Soon hate would die in a lap of shame. But a whisper derides us. As you think of the meeting of the remaining few of those who stood against God and liberty, let the better angels of your nature, as Lincoln put it, hold away [sic].[17]

In his trademark cinematic style, Simmons concluded the article with a depiction of the scene in heaven as the leaders of the Confederacy watched the vets’ reunion from above:

Up in heaven, Davis, Stonewall Jackson, Lee, the incomparable soldier, all look down on their comrades. ‘We fought a losing fight,’ they say among themselves… ‘I wish I could get word to my old comrades and their children,’ [Lee] would say; ‘I would tell them that every cause against freedom is a Lost Cause.’ Hold nothing against the old Confederate soldier. He took a shot at you in his youth. He knows as well as you that he was wrong.[18]

Once again, Confederate leaders are treated with an ample measure of grace, while Simmons’ contemporaries—Confederate commemorators and Lost Cause partisans—are derided.

As late as 1941, Simmons was still criticizing Confederate Memorial Day, writing that the South fought for

The cause of every “state” having the right to hold men in slavery. They didn’t win; couldn’t win; slavery has NEVER won. It was a losing fight; the same states now fight a losing fight, although they are noisy, set, hard-headed.[19]

Simmons suggested that on the real Memorial Day (the “Lincoln-Grant-Logan day”), his readers should

Repeat Finch’s well-known lines:


"Under the sod and the dew,


Waiting the Judgment Day—


Love and tears for the blue;


Tears and love for the gray."


And, with a sigh, let it go at that.[20]

Simmons’ writing was evocative and distinctive. The delivery of his arguments was fueled by biting sarcasm and driven home with imagery that leaped from the page. He implicated his audience in his reckoning of the relationship between monuments and history, reminding his readers that they, too, were part of the long telling and retelling of the history of the Civil War.

Justin Seward


Gates, Henry Louis, and Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham. “African American National Biography.” Oxford University Press, 2008, 201. Available at https://books.google.com/books?id=OSsOAQAAMAAJ&q=greenview+mississippi

Harvard Library. “Roscoe Conkling Simmons, 1881–1951.” Harvard Library: Hollis for Archival Discovery. Available at https://hollisarchives.lib.harvard.edu/agents/people/7320

New York Times. “H.L. Johnson Dies; A Republican Leader.” September 11, 1925, 23. Available at https://www.nytimes.com/1925/09/11/archives/hl-johnson-dies-a-republican-leader-negro-national-committeeman-had.html

Simmons, Roscoe. “A Georgia Hero.” Afro-American, January 7, 1928, 1.

Simmons, Roscoe. “Ha’nts Metal and Stone.” Chicago Defender, March 25, 1922, 13.

Simmons, Roscoe. “Lincoln Accused.” Chicago Defender, July 1, 1922, 13.

Simmons, Roscoe. “Still Another Decoration Day Sure.” Chicago Defender, May 31, 1941, 15.

Simmons, Roscoe. “Stone Mountain.” Chicago Defender, April 28, 1923, 13.

Simmons, Roscoe. “That Roosevelt Tree.” Chicago Defender, November 11, 1922, 13.

Simmons, Roscoe. “The Convention Confederates Meet Slavery in Florida.” Chicago Defender, April 14, 1923, 13.

Simmons, Roscoe. “The Davis Monument.” Chicago Defender, June 14, 1924, A1.

St. Paul Recorder. “Roscoe Simmons, Orator Par Excellence.” May 18, 1951, 4.

  1. His exact date of birth is contested. ↩︎

  2. Gates and Higginbotham, “The African American National Biography,” 201. ↩︎

  3. Harvard Library, “Roscoe Conkling Simmons, 1881-1851.” ↩︎

  4. St. Paul Recorder, “Roscoe Simmons, Orator Par Excellence.” (emphasis original). ↩︎

  5. (Simmons, “Ha’nts Metal and Stone”; Simmons, “Lincoln Accused”; Simmons, “The Roosevelt Tree.”) ↩︎

  6. (Simmons, “Lincoln Accused.”) ↩︎

  7. (Simmons, “Stone Mountain.”) ↩︎

  8. (Simmons, “Stone Mountain.”) ↩︎

  9. (Simmons, “Stone Mountain.”) ↩︎

  10. (Simmons, “Stone Mountain.”) ↩︎

  11. (Simmons, “The Davis Monument.”) ↩︎

  12. (Simmons, “The Davis Monument.”) ↩︎

  13. (Simmons, “The Davis Monument.”) ↩︎

  14. (Simmons, “A Georgia Hero.”) ↩︎

  15. New York Times, “H.L. Johnson Dies; A Republican Leader.” ↩︎

  16. (Simmons, “A Georgia Hero.”) ↩︎

  17. (Simmons, “The Convention Confederates Meet Slavery in Florida,”) ↩︎

  18. (Simmons, “The Convention Confederates Meet Slavery in Florida,”) ↩︎

  19. Simmons, “Still Another Decoration Day Sure” (emphasis
    original). ↩︎

  20. Simmons, “Still Another Decoration Day Sure” (emphasis
    original). ↩︎