Thursday, July 21, 2011

Furnifold McLendel Simmons (1854-1940)

  One of the longest-serving senators in North Carolina history, Furnifold McLendel Simmons is also one of the more stranger names you'll find while perusing a roster of former U.S. Senators. For more than 30 years Simmons was the titular political boss of North Carolina and conducted vigorous opposition to the civil rights and equality of blacks during his years in office.
  Simmons was born in Pollocksville, North Carolina on January 20, 1854, and inherited his unusual first name from his father, Furnifold Green Simmons. The younger Simmons attended schools local to the Jones County, North Carolina area and eventually enrolled at the Trinity College, where he earned his law degree in 1875. In November of 1874 Simmons married fellow North Carolina native Eliza Hill Humphrey, with whom he would have four children, Mary Rebecca (born 1877), James Humphrey (born 1878), Eliza Humphrey (1883-1939). Eliza Hill Humphrey Simmons died at age 26 in 1883 and three years later Furnifold remarried to Belle Gibbs (1865-1938), with whom he would have two more children, Ella (1889-1968) and Isabelle (1889-1968).
  In 1886 Simmons made his first stab at public office, running as a Democrat for North Carolina's 2nd congressional district. When the votes were tallied Simmons emerged the victor, and officially took his seat in January 1887. Two years later Simmons ran for re-election, and ironically enough (considering his later white supremacy campaigns) lost to a former slave named Henry Plummer Cheatham (1857-1935), who was running on the Republican ticket.
  After his defeat, Simmons was appointed by then-President Cleveland as the Collector of Internal Revenue for North Carolina's Fourth district in 1893. After serving in this capacity for four years Simmons was persuaded by his fellow Democrats to take the leadership of his states Democratic State Executive Committee. After doing so in 1898, Simmons instigated a radical white supremacist agenda that kept any blacks from going to the polls. Promising a return to "white dominance" in the state, Simmons and the Democrats successfully scared black voters from casting their votes.
   In 1900 the North Carolina General Assembly named Simmons to the U.S. Senate to replace outgoing senator Marion Butler. Simmons would serve as senator for thirty years, and would serve on the Committee on Finance and the Committee on Commerce.  Simmons is also recorded as serving as a member of the congressional subcommittee that investigated the Titanic sinking in 1912, and as a result of the subcommittee's inquiry into the disaster, many new regulations and passenger safety measures were passed.
  During his many years of senate service, Simmons still maintained an unwavering stance on white superiority, and it was floated as the predominant theme whenever he was up for re-election (as evidenced by the campaign button below.)

   In 1930, the "Chieftain of White Supremacy" was defeated in his bid for re-election by Republican Josiah W. Bailey. Simmons's loss can be attributed to his refusal to endorse Democratic presidential candidate Alfred Smith in 1928 (alienating many of his fellow party members) as well as the onset of the Great Depression. Simmons (a staunch Democrat) had earlier mentioned during the 1928 Presidential nomination that he would not except a Smith candidacy due to his wanting to repeal the Volstead Act (which obviously drew the ire of Prohibitionist Simmons) and true to his word, refrained from endorsing either Smith or Republican candidate Herbert Hoover during that year's election.
  After leaving the senate in 1931, Simmons retired to New Bern, North Carolina, where he engaged in farming and banking for the remainder of his life. He died at age 86 at the home of his daughter on April 30, 1940. He had been preceded in death by his second wife Belle (who had died two years earlier in 1938) and both were interred at the Ceder Grove Cemetery in New Bern.

                      An obituary for Simmons that appeared in the Montreal Gazette in 1940.

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