Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog

William Stewart Simkins, the Klan and the Law School

Posted in African Americans, Education, Leadership, Memory by Andy Hall on July 12, 2010

On Friday, University of Texas at Austin President William Powers Jr. issued a statement calling on the university’s Board of Regents to change the name of Simkins Hall, a dorm for graduate and law students. The dorm, built in the 1950s, is named for a famed UT law professor who was a Confederate officer and, as a recent publication points out, a senior leader of the Ku Klux Klan in Florida during Reconstruction and a lifelong, unabashed defender of the “Invisible Empire” throughout his later tenure at the university. The Board of Regents is likely to consider the president’s recommendation at a meeting this week.

William Stewart Simkins (1842-1929) was a well-known member of the faculty at the University of Texas, teaching there from 1899 to 1929. Although he officially attained emeritus status in 1923, he continued to lecture weekly until his death. “Colonel Simkins,” as he was sometimes called, was a memorable teacher, and something of a character. He was grumpy and irritable. He drank whiskey and once got into a famous argument with the temperance leader Carrie Nation. “Many students were scared of him,” one old alum wrote, “but I always got on well with him and did well in his class.”

Simkins was a South Carolinian by birth, and enrolled at the Citadel in the years just before the outbreak of the Civil War. In January 1861, it was Cadet Simkins who sounded the alarm when lookouts sighted Star of the West, a civilian steamer sent by the Buchanan administration to bring supplies to the Federal garrison at Fort Sumter. (Some contemporary accounts credit Simkins with firing the initial gun, widely recognized as the first shot of the Civil War.) Simkins was subsequently commissioned as an artillery officer in a South Carolina battery, participated in the defense of Charleston Harbor in 1863, and ended the war in 1865 as a colonel.

After the war, Simkins settled in Florida, where he and his older brother, Eldred James Simkins (1838-1903), soon helped organize that state’s Ku Klux Klan. By his own admission, William Stewart Simkins played a central role in coordinating that organization’s violence and intimidation against both white “carpetbaggers” and African Americans who challenged the prewar social or political order. Simkins not only acknowledged his role in the Klan’s violent activities, he fairly bragged about his own deeds. In an infamous speech he gave fifteen years after joining the UT faculty — and a half-century after the war — Simkins told of how he ambushed an African American state senator who had spoken out publicly against Simkins’ and his friends’ publication of a anti-Reconstructionist newspaper:

Now in the same town there was a negro [sic.] by the name of Robert Meacham who was. . . brought up as a domestic servant in a refined Southern family and absorbed much of the courteous manner of the old regime. He had been highly honored by the Republican party; in fact, had been made temporary chairman of the so-called Constitutional Convention heretofore referred to. He was at the time of which I am now speaking State Senator and Postmaster in the town. I could hardly exaggerate his influence among the negroes; glib of tongue, he swayed them to his purpose whether for good or evil; in a word, he was their idol. On one occasion he was delivering a very radical speech in which he referred to the paper which we were editing as that “dirty little sheet.” He was correct as to the word “little,” for it was not much larger than a good size pocket handkerchief; but it was exceedingly warm, a fact which had excited his ire. The next day, being informed by a friend who was present of Meacham’s remark, I called upon him at the post-office and asked an interview. With his usual courtesy he bowed and said he would come over to my office as soon as he had distributed the mail. I cut a stick, carried it up to the office and hid it under my desk. Within an hour he appeared. I told him to take a seat, but I could see that he suspected something unusual as he began to back towards the door. I saw that I was going to lose the opportunity of an interview, so I grabbed the stick and made for him. Now, my office was the upper story of a merchandise building approached on the side by wooden stairs. I hardly think that he touched one of those steps going down; it was a case of aerial navigation to the ground. This gave him the start of me. He was pursued up to the postoffice door and through a street filled with negroes and yet not a hand was raised or word said in his defense, nor was the incident ever noticed by the authorities. The unseen power was behind me. Had I attempted anything of the kind a year before I would have been mobbed or suffered the penalties of the law.

In modern-day Texas, this would be considered aggravated assault — a first-degree felony when committed against a public servant.

Simkins’ active involvement with the Klan may have ended when he and his brother came to Texas and began practicing law in Corsicana in the early 1870s, but his open admiration and promotion of the Klan did not. He continued to be an outspoken champion of the “Invisible Empire” throughout his decades on the faculty in Austin. Simkins’ 1914 Thanksgiving Day speech, excerpted above, was so popular that he gave it again on Thanksgiving the following year, 1915, a date which is widely accepted as the rebirth of the Klan in the 20th century. The speech was subsquently published in the UT alumni magazine, The Alcade.

Professor Simkins’ role as a founder of the Ku Klux Klan in Florida had largely been forgotten until this past spring, when Tom Russell, a law professor at the University of Denver, published a paper (PDF download) on the Klan and its sympathizers as a force that had worked steadily behind the scenes at UT to exclude African American students. Russell had first encountered Simkins’ history when Russell himself had been a faculty member in Austin in the 1990s. Russell presented his paper in March at a conference on the UT campus on the history on integration of the school, and publicly called for Simkins Hall to be renamed. The story was quickly picked up in blogs and editorials, and coverage in the Wall Street Journal and on television news soon followed.

It’s important to remember the time at which the decision was made to name the new dormitory after Professor Simkins. An editorial in the campus newspaper, the Daily Texan, points out that the 1954 decision came just weeks after the Supreme Court issued its famous Brown v. Board of Education ruling. But it’s likely that the regents who considered and approved the move were thinking at least as much about an earlier decision, Sweatt v. Painter (1950), in which a unanimous Supreme Court had rejected Texas’ refusal to admit an African American man, Heman Marion Sweatt, to the University of Texas School of Law on the grounds that there was no other public law school in the state of similar caliber open to African Americans. The Sweatt case was another nail in the coffin of separate-but-equal as enshrined in Plessy, and the State of Texas fought hard against it, going so far as to secure a six-month delay in state court quickly to establish a blacks-only law school at Texas Southern University in Houston — now the Thurgood Marshall School of Law. Considering the rancor that surrounded the Sweatt case — a cross was burned in front of the law school during Sweatt’s first semester — it’s hard to believe that just four years later, when it came time to name the new law school dormitory building, old Professor Simkins’ infamous Thanksgiving lectures, attended by hundreds of enthusiastic and applauding students, had been forgotten.

Russell’s call to remove Simkins’ name from the dorm has generated a lot of interest, and much controversy. Russell has continued to be a strong and steadfast advocate for the change, reminding critics that the issue here is not Simkins’ service as a Confederate officer during the war, but his active involvement with the Klan in the years following, and his enthusiastic support of the violence and intimidation they employed. “Please note that I have no problem with Colonel Simkinsʼs service as a Confederate soldier,” Russell wrote in an opinion piece in The Horn, the UT online news site. “Confederate and Union soldiers alike fought with honor. No one should confuse Confederate soldiers with Klansman. Doing so dishonors the soldiers by equating them with criminals.” I’m not certain, based on his manuscript, that Professor Russell is entirely sincere in drawing a bright line between the conduct of klansmen and wartime Confederates more generally; it may be more of a calculation than a conviction.

Nonetheless, Simkins Hall has got to go.

The Board of Regents is widely expected to accept President Powers’ recommendation to rename Simkins Hall this week. The facility’s new name would be “Creekside Dormitory.”

Additional: At the end of the third-to-last paragraph above, I observed that Professor Russell’s distinction between the action of klansmen like Simkins and Confederate soldiers as a whole was “more of a calculation than a conviction.” After thinking about it a little more, I’m convinced of it, but my comment was somewhat flip and unduly harsh. It’s effective strategy. In adding that short paragraph to his op-ed, Professor Russell takes a necessary and practical step to narrow the focus of his campaign. I have no idea what Russell’s views on the Civil War or the Confederacy are generally, but he very wisely keeps the focus here on Simkins, both his actions as a klansman during Reconstruction and his advocacy for the Klan in the decades that followed. The removal of Simkins’ name from the dorm is an easy case to make, on its own merits; allowing others to redirect the debate into one about the Confederacy (or “political correctness,” or the late Senator Robert Byrd, etc.) is wrong. In three sentences, Russell keeps the focus exactly where it should be in this case, on whether or not a major university should retain the name on one of its dormitories of a man whose explicit and enthusiastically-held actions and attitudes are so entirely out of line with the values the institution stands for. By excluding the Confederacy and the war from his central argument, Russell pares his campaign to its central and essential element, reducing it to a core that is effectively impossible to argue against on its own merits. That’s good lawyering.

Additional, Pt. 2: Tom Russell has a column on this case at the Huffington Post.