Robert Simmons died at his Parkersburg home on January 16, 1892. A free black man during the days of slavery, he moved to Parkersburg in 1841 and earned a living as a barber. He and his wife Sarah worried that their nine children wouldn’t receive a proper education.
So, in 1862, he and other free black men established Sumner School in Parkersburg. Sumner was the first school for African American children in present-day West Virginia and south of the Mason-Dixon Line.
Shortly after the school’s founding, Simmons traveled through war-torn Virginia to meet with Abraham Lincoln in Washington.
The president authorized use of a rundown army barracks to serve as the Sumner school building. Sumner would later establish the first black high school department in West Virginia. It remained open until segregation ended in the 1950s.
Simmons also was a leading African American voice in the Republican Party, twice serving as a state delegate to national conventions. He even turned down an offer from President Ulysses S. Grant to be U.S. consul to Haiti. Today, Parkersburg’s downtown post office is named in honor of Robert Simmons.