CASPER, Wyo. – Jimmy Simmons vividly recalls the first time his feet touched the ground in Casper.
It was June 10, 1971, and Simmons was stepping off a train that picked him up in his hometown of Houston, Texas, days earlier.
“I was looking south down Wolcott and I thought ‘where the hell are all the people?'”
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Simmons arrived here for temporary summer work as part of a program to help him finish his agriculture degree back in Texas. He soon decided to stay. “I made Casper my home,” he said.
Simmons took a job in an oil patch for $4 an hour. For extra money, he collected tips while dancing and entertaining downtown Casper crowds on the corner of First and Center. On that corner, he met his future wife, Darlene, and earned enough money to hire an accountant to devise a plan to start his own well servicing business.
“I got a loan for $455,000, and I bought my first oil rig when I was 28 years old,” he said. From there he spent nearly 40 years as a drilling foreman before retiring after suffering serious memory issues after what he believes was an apparent poisoning.
“I lost my memory, I had to start over,” he said, adding that he “came out of it” after months of recovery.
It wasn’t the first time Simmons says being a Black man in America can be fraught with risks.
His childhood in a predominantly Black Houston suburb is filled with mostly peaceful memories. When his parents moved and he transferred to a mostly-white high school, however, things changed.
“We were just coming right out of segregation in the ’60s, you know,” recalls Simmons, “and I had seen one guy who hated black people so much, he came up to me and he stood in front of me, he went into some kind of trance.”
“On first day I showed up and had on a nice white shirt, starched and ironed jeans, and my shoes are clean,” he recalls. “I walked into shop class there and the first thing they do is throw ink on me. That was my first day.”
“There was some bullying but I got that straightened out,” he said. “I had to relax a little bit, too. They were adjusting and so was I.”
He joined the football team, and credits the coaches for saving him at least once from a gang of angry white schoolmates intent on attacking him with tar and feathers.
Years later while living in Wyoming, the same tar and feather threat returned when Simmons got word from a friend that someone else in Edgerton, where he was working a side business, was looking for him. He was able to avoid the situation, but a machine at the laundromat he owned there was destroyed after he says it was operated with the tar and feathers inside.
“I’ve seen so much of that stuff that it really wasn’t terrifying to me, you know,” he said, “and I usually was armed all the time living here.”
Simmons’ transition from businessman and oil patch foreman into civil rights came almost by accident. His friend Mel Hamilton was principal of East Junior High when reports of racist blowback from certain staff members began to surface in the late 1990s.
A redacted version of the report was released in 2000 after a lawsuit by the Casper Star-Tribune shows that Hamilton dealt with aggressive insubordination from some staff, who were repeatedly heard mocking his speech and appearance, and consistently used racial epitaphs behind his back.
Simmons’ support led him to become the Casper NAACP president in 2001, where he gained national attention in 2013 when he met with organizers from the Ku Klux Klan. The first-of-its-kind meeting was the result of multiple reports that Black people were being harassed and injured in Gillette after the KKK moved in with racist literature and recruiters.
“It’s about opening dialogue with a group that claims they’re trying to reform themselves from violence,” Simmons said in an interview to the Associated Press after the event. “They’re trying to shed that violent skin, but it seems like they’re just changing the packaging.”
Simmons stepped down from the NAACP after 16 years, and last year joined the Pikes Peak Southern Christian Leadership Conference as its vice president, where he and his daughters were instrumental in organizing a peaceful march and vigil last June for George Floyd, whose video-recorded death from police brutality sparked an outpouring of protests across the world.
Simmons led the way as hundreds of marchers quietly followed down streets lined with “armed militia” carrying long guns and other weapons.
During the peaceful but tense march, Simmons suddenly darted from the front to shake hands speak to an armed civilian. The man warmly greeted him back while handing over a bottle of water.
“I thanked him,” recalls Simmons. “I thanked him for showing up because I live here too, and I just feel it is a better way of doing things than going out and tearing up your neighbor’s property.”
Simmons says there’s clearly more work to be done, and the racial tensions boiling up over the past few years have not discouraged his outlook. He’s seen progress, but says implicit bias still exists in the judicial system and in police departments. There are also what he calls are the undeniable disparities in housing and jobs for people of color.
“I’ve been here almost 50 years, and from what I’ve seen in that period of time is we’re not dealing with a gulf anymore,” said Simmons. “We’re closer to being where we need to be.”