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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.”