From the post-Reconstruction period to the modern civil rights era, nearly a century of state-sanctioned economic subjugation created what many regard as a permanent Black underclass in America.
What would have happened had freed slaves truly been enfranchised into the political and economic system after the Civil War? Staking a Claim examines the life of Jake Simmons, Jr. - the international tycoon who was the most successful African American in the history of the oil industry - and affords us a rare perspective on this question.
Simmons’s great-grandfather Cow Tom, a slave interpreter to a Creek Indian, rose to become the first Black chief of a Native American tribe. This was in Indian Territory (which later became Oklahoma), where Blacks were able to secure rights denied them in the White-controlled states.
Cow Tom passed on a unique legacy of independence and entrepreneurial spirit that gelled in Jake. His resolve strengthened by his studies with Booker T. Washington, Jake took a series of calculated risks that allowed him to accomplish what would have seemed impossible to many and become enormously rich at it.
He began by brokering oil leases for Black landowners, who had formerly been cheated by White drillers in Oklahoma and Texas. Expanding his operations into postcolonial Africa, he negotiated amiably where America’s multinational oil giants feared to tread, winning enormous concessions while earning the goodwill of African leaders.
As a political power broker, Jake Simmons was no less impressive. He remained throughout his life what he called “a crusader for human dignity”. In 1938, he brought one of the first school desegregation cases to the Supreme Court. It was said that while he served as the head of Oklahoma’s NAACP, his opinion held sway over 10,000 voters. White politicians across the South vied for his support. He asked his sons, “How the hell can a Black man stay in bed in the morning when White men rule the world?” And he lived by those words.