James M. Simms

James Merilus Simms’s place in Savannah history was huge. He was a member of the House of Representatives. According to Documenting the American South:

James M. Simms was born into slavery in Savannah, Georgia in 1823. Simms was a carpenter by trade, and using money he earned from additional work, he was able to buy his freedom in 1857 for $740.

Simms was baptized into the First African Baptist Church of Savannah in 1841. Shortly after he was baptized, he was expelled from the church for lack of humility. He did not return to the church until 1858.

In 1864, Simms moved to Boston, MA, where he was ordained a minister (his ordination was not recognized by the Baptist church in Georgia). In 1865, Simms returned home to Georgia, where he worked for the Freedmen’s Bureau and was a Union League organizer. Simms was one of the 916 black ministers to sign a petition protesting poor treatment of blacks in the Union Army, and he was an ardent supporter of voting rights for blacks.

In 1867, Simms established the Southern Radical and Freedmen’s Journal (renamed the Freemen’s Standard in 1868). Simms was elected to the Georgia House of Representatives in 1868. Soon afterward, he and all other African-Americans elected to positions in the Georgia government were expelled, but were reinstated to their posts in 1870 by Congressional order. In 1888, Simms published The First Colored Baptist Church in North America, a history of the First African Baptist Church in Savannah, Georgia.

You can find the text here.

Simms’s voter registration in Savannah in 1872 (ninth row)

James M. Simms could also easily be known at the godfather of Freemasonry here in Savannah. According to the Most Worshipful Prince Hall Grand Lodge of Georgia:

At the close of the Civil War in 1865, Masonic Lodges began to appear in the Southern States. Rev. James M. Simms, a Baptist minister and a free man from Savannah, Georgia, had moved to Boston, Massachusetts where he was made a Mason. As soon as the Civil War ended, Rev. James M. Simms, clothed with Masonic authority as a District Deputy Grand Master, returned to Savannah to live and establish Eureka Lodge, No. 1, F. & A. M. on February 4, 1866. In December 1866, Hilton Lodge No 13, F. & A. M. was established with both Lodges receiving warrants from the Prince Hall Lodge of Massachusetts. On December 13, 1866, Banneker Lodge No. 38, F. & A. M., was established at Augusta, Ga., by the Grand Lodge of Pennsylvania. Rev. J. M. Simms called these three Masonic Lodges to meet in Savannah, where on June 24, 1870, he organized the Most Worshipful Grand Lodge of Georgia Free and Accepted Masons. Rev. James M. Simms was elected to serve as its first Grand Master.

Simms and family in the 1910 Census, starting on row 37
Simms’s burial plot card

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