Roscoe Conkling Simmons (June 20, 1881 – April 27, 1951) was an American journalist, orator, and political activist. The nephew of Booker T. Washington, he is noted as the first African-American columnist employed by the Chicago Tribune and for his longtime influence in the United States Republican Party.
Simmons was born in Mississippi in 1881 and named after New York Republican congressman Roscoe Conkling. The nephew of Booker T. Washington through Washington's third wife Margaret, when he was 12 years old Washington secured a job for him as an office boy to U.S. Senator Mark Hanna, a millionaire industrialist and the personal friend of William McKinley. Simmons' childhood spent with Hanna began his lifelong association with Republican politics and he would remain close friends with the powerful Hanna family for the rest of his life. Simmons graduated from the Tuskegee Institute.
Simmons began his career as a reporter for the Pensacola Daily Press before moving to the Chicago Defender, where the growing popularity of his columns made him that newspaper's highest-paid employee and a staple of its front page. During World War I he reported from Europe on the conditions of African-American soldiers in the U.S. Army. During this time he earned the nickname "the Colonel," though reportedly never left Paris, having become "distracted by its allure and its women."
As part of a scheme by the Military Intelligence Division to elevate the prominence of patriotic black leaders as a counter to the perceived threat of subversion within the African-American community, Simmons was engaged in a nationwide series of lectures and speeches. Major Walter Loving served as his manager. Simmons quickly established a reputation for unparalleled oratorical skills, with William Jennings Bryan calling him "one of the great orators of the world." Promoted in advertisements as "America's greatest orator," W. Herbert Brewster even attributed a 1916 speech by Simmons as his motivation "to be somebody someday."
In his stump speech "My Country and My Flag", Simmons declared:
A lifelong Republican, Simmons was the driving force behind the party's lock on the African-American vote from the early 1900s through to the Great Depression. He formed part of the so-called "Old Guard," a triumvirate of black party insiders that wielded significant backroom influence within the GOP and which also included Perry Wilbon Howard and Robert Reed Church. In 1936 he arranged to have an all-white South Carolina delegation to the national convention replaced with an integrated slate.
Three times elected a delegate to the Republican National Convention, Simmons gave the second to the nomination of Herbert Hoover as candidate for the President of the United States at the 1932 convention. According to a report in the Pittsburgh Courier the day after the nomination, "his exit from the platform was blocked by senators, committeemen, governors, and others high in the public life who sought to touch the hem of his garment."
In 1936 Simmons was appointed chair of the Negro Speakers Bureau of the Republican Party, a group of prominent African-American GOP activists, by national committee chairman John Hamilton.
Simmons twice unsuccessfully ran for elective office on the Republican ticket, once for U.S. House of Representatives and once for Illinois State Senate.
For nine years, beginning in the 1940s, Simmons was a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, that newspaper's first black writer. His column, the Untold Story, featured tales of successful African-Americans.
Simmons was married twice, and had three sons by his first wife: William, Thomas, and Roscoe. His second wife, Althea Amaryllis Merchant, was initiated into the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority at the University of Illinois and would later serve as its regional director.
Simmons was the godfather to Walter Loving, Jr., the son of Walter Loving. His correspondence and personal papers are held in deposit at Harvard University, from which his oldest son, William, graduated.