William Henry “Bill” Simons was born in Washington, DC, in 1924 and attended DC public schools, which were segregated at that time. In 1943, he interrupted his studies at Miner Teachers College to serve in World War II.
On D-Day, June 6, 1944, as a sergeant major in the 262nd Quartermasters Battalion, he was one of the heroes who helped defeat Nazi oppression by storming Normandy, braving Nazi machine guns and bombs. For his courage, he was awarded the Bronze Star and the Croix de Guerre.
Simons rose to be a sergeant major, the highest rank possible for an enlisted soldier.
After the war, he completed his education and began an 18 year career as a social studies teacher at Banneker Junior High in the District of Columbia.
In 1964, Simons was elected president of Local 6, American Federation of Teachers (AFT), soon to be called the Washington Teachers’ Union. It was a merger of Local 27 for black teachers, Local 8 for white teachers, and local 856, an integrated local for attendance officers.
Simons served as WTU president for a total of 25 years -- from 1964 to 1991 (with a hiatus from 1985-87).
Protesting at Reagan White House
Through educating, organizing, persuading, collaborating, striking and demonstrating, under Bill Simons’ leadership, the voice of DC teachers was amplified to win many victories:
- Compensation more commensurate with other professions requiring college degrees,
- On-the-job equality for women,
- Rights for temporary teachers,
- The right for teachers to access their own personnel files, and
- Tracking of students, which would have re-established mostly segregated schools.
During his tenure as president, Simons was a champion of District Home Rule and fought against plans that would have de facto re-segregated DC schools. He was also a pioneer in fighting for educational equity and the right of every DC public school student to receive the educational opportunities they need to succeed, regardless of their race, ethnicity, immigration status or economic circumstances.
He was an observer in the first democratic elections in South Africa, a college lecturer, writer and consultant and in 1995 was appointed treasurer of the prestigious Association for the Study of African American Life and History, which was founded by the legendary historian Carter G. Woodson.
As the first modern president of the Washington Teachers Union, Bill Simons was the voice of DC labor, an icon in black history and the center of DC politics.
~ Elizabeth Davis, WTU President
Watch a video about President Simons here.
Read President Simons' obituary from the Washington Post.