Source: Jonita Mullins/ Muskogee Phoenix
Without a doubt, the “most feared” African American man during Oklahoma’s territorial days would have been U.S. Deputy Marshal Bass Reeves. The legendary lawman had few equals in law enforcement on the wild frontier.
But another African American who called Muskogee home has been described as the “most feared black man in Oklahoma.” This was Joseph Jacob Simmons Jr., an oil tycoon who was once listed in Forbes Fortune 400. His considerable wealth gave him access to other wealthy and powerful people and helped Simmons become a power-broker in the state.
Known as Jake Simmons, he was born near Sawokla, Indian Territory in 1901. His father, a Creek Lighthorseman, owned a large ranch near the town that would eventually be named Haskell.
The elder Simmons, as a member of the Creek tribe, used the allotment system to build a prosperous cattle ranch. He and his several children took their land allotments in proximity to one another, creating the 1,000-acre spread. Jake Simmons grew up learning the value of hard work by herding cattle and mending fences for his father.
So prosperous was the Simmons ranch that it caught the attention of Booker T. Washington, and the noted educator visited the Simmons’ home while on a trip to Oklahoma. On his visit he convinced Jake to attend the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. Washington would become a life-long friend and mentor to Jake Simmons.
After graduating from Tuskegee in 1919, Jake worked for a time in Detroit, but soon returned to Oklahoma. In the 1920s, oil was discovered on his allotment. Haskell was experiencing an oil boom, and men such as J. Paul Getty were drilling in the area. Simmons entered the oil business and became arguably one of the most successful African Americans in the history of the oil industry.
Simmons brokered oil leases in Oklahoma, Arkansas, Texas and Kansas and branched out into real estate, insurance and the cattle business. He worked with other successful oil men such as Frank Phillips, E.W. Marland and Henry Sinclair. His experience in brokering oil deals in Oklahoma led to his work in representing American oil companies in Africa.
Simmons was the first black to be appointed to the National Petroleum Council in 1969. He was also active in the civil rights movement and served as president of the Oklahoma National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. He fought for the rights of blacks in the courts, but was also a capitalist who believed in creating jobs to help others.
Simmons, who died in 1981, once said, “It is a waste of life for a man to fail to achieve when he has the opportunity.”
Simmons certainly followed his own philosophy, for he achieved great success in his life and built a reputation that brought him respect throughout the state and around the world.