Black Oil Tycoon: Jake Simmons (1901-1981)
Jake Simmons, Jr. hailed from a heritage of leaders and self-made men. His great-grandfather Cow Tom, formerly a Creek Indian slave, served as an interpreter for the tribe in its difficult post-Civil War dealings with the U.S. government. He parlayed his language skills and knowledge of the “red man’s,” “black man’s,” and “white man’s” worlds alike into leveraging situations to the advantage of his fellow Creek freedmen in Indian Territory.
A visit by legendary African-American educator Booker T. Washington, a friend of Jake’s ranching father, led to his attendance at and graduation from the Tuskegee Institute, a renowned all-black university founded by Washington. His success there, as throughout his life, including his young teen years after he left home to live on his own, was fueled by a relentless work ethic and a breathtaking ambition to make something special of his life.
In the 1920s and 1930s, Simmons prospered in both real estate and brokering oil deals. He helped recruit other talented African Americans to the Muskogee area from Texas. His dealings with conservative white Oklahoma oil titans like Frank Phillips, William Skelly, and Harry Sinclair were unprecedented for a black man in that generation or the next. He proved so adept at securing valuable oil leases that some of the largest operators in the world trusted him with their money—and future—to find them the right places to explore, all over the South, Southwest, and Midwest.
As biographer Jonathan Greenberg wrote, Jake Simmons “influenced conservative oilmen not by talking to them about oppression but by conducting himself in a manner which won respect for both himself and his race.”
Simmons’ son Donald recalled:
“My dad never signed a contract with any of these men that he did business with. And they would trust him with unlimited sums of money on his word. You have to look at that to say there’s a whole lot in this country that’s right even when it’s at its worst…There were always sympathetic people willing to give a man a chance, and that’s one of the great things about this country. If there hadn’t been white people who were sympathetic and whose hearts were in the right place, I’m sure all the black people in this country would be dead.”
In the 1950s, Simmons took his talents and ambition to Africa. The first black American oilman to engage the governments of that continent, he secured one of the largest mineral concessions ever granted to one person in Liberia. Having lined up all the necessary pieces, Simmons’ Liberian enterprise failed just short of the end zone. His bitter political rival, Oklahoma’s powerful U.S. Senator Robert S. Kerr, refused to commit his giant Kerr McGee Corporation and its needed mineral exploration expertise to the enterprise.
In typical Jake Simmons fashion, he shook off this disappointment and used it to his advantage when approaching officials in the Nigerian government. As he developed relationships—and friendships—there, he simultaneously established his credibility with Bartlesville-based Phillips Petroleum.
An African American doing this in the conservative world of petroleum had never even been contemplated before. But Simmons was as patient as he was relentless. He also established influence within the Kennedy Presidential Administration. JFK’s brother Bobby personally hired Jake’s son Donald as an Interior Department executive.
Simmons was thus prepared when historic opportunity arrived in the mid-1960s. He gained key high level entrée with Nigerian officials through his U.S. government bona fides. The Nigerians needed investment in their natural resources, as well as an American oilman they could trust. And Phillips needed a man on the ground in country with the right contacts.
Everyone, including Simmons, made millions through the exploration, drilling, and production that followed. Trailblazing accomplishments in Ghana followed.
Always Helping Others
A consummate American patriot, Simmons refused to allow his forward vision to prevent him from remembering the forgotten people behind him. He championed black constitutional rights from an early age until his death. In the late 1930s, he helmed an early court challenge to “separate but equal” black and white public schools in his own town, with Simmons v. Muskogee Board of Education.
He also parlayed his leadership of both the Muskogee chapter of the NAACP and the town’s Negro Chamber of Commerce into fund raising leadership for two important civil rights court cases involving OU. Sipuel v. University of Oklahoma and McLaurin v. University of Oklahoma (Chapter 5) played central roles in bringing about the Supreme Court’s historic 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling that ordered desegregation of all American public schools.
Simmons labored ceaselessly to find employment for blacks. Biographer Greenberg chronicled Simmons’ minister E. W. Darkins as recalling:
“He found jobs for hundreds of people. People would just go to Jake’s office as though it was an employment office. If he couldn’t get to you today he’d say, ‘Come back tomorrow, I’m going to call somebody and I’m going to get you a job.’ And he would.”
His legacy far outlasted his 1981 death, not least through his four children. Jake III was undersecretary of the U.S. Interior Department for the Reagan Administration. Son Don, the Kennedy administration official, was an economist who played the key role in opening Ghana to American oil. Daughter Blanche served as a social worker. Son Kenneth was a Harvard-educated professor of architecture at the University of California.
Decades before Simmons’ 1981 death, Owen Thomas, international production manager for Phillips, received the Oklahoman’s initial pitch to help Phillips succeed in Libya. Thomas coolly rebuffed him. In the end, however, he provided perhaps the most appropriate epitaph for this invincible giant of a man:
“In spite of coming into a world where the cards seemed to be stacked against him, he was strong enough to overcome those obstacles and win the respect and admiration of the people in the system who worked with him. The fact that he could experience what all black people experienced in those days and still not be bitter was a remarkable achievement.”
The above article is a bonus to the fascinating historical content found within our book
Oklahomans Vol 2 :
Statehood - 2020s
which can be purchased HERE.
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