October 14, 2016 6 min to read
Asbury Park Press Review: ‘Staking a Claim’ by Jonathan Greenberg
Publication : Books, Uncategorized
February 4, 1990 Asbury Park Press
Tracing the roots of a black oil dynasty
In Search of Jake Simmons Jr.
By ELEENA M. DE LISSER Press Staff Writer
Jonathan Greenberg was a young reporter working at Forbes magazine in 1982 when he got the assignment.
Find the 400 richest people in America whose names the magazine could publish as a sort of who’s who guide of wealth and prestige. For Greenberg, this meant a year’s worth of research, crisscrossing the country, doing the legwork and making the contacts that would yield this sort of information.
It was in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Greenberg first heard of Jake Simmons Jr. A banker told him about Simmons after looking at a tentative list Greenberg had drawn up of local millionaires.
“You’re missin’ Jake Simmons from Muskogee (Oklahoma),” the banker said. “The colored fella who put Phillips (Petroleum) into Africa. He’s a born trader — worth more than any of the names you got heah.”
The name meant nothing to Greenberg, but his curiosity was piqued. When Jake Simmons Jr. died in 1981 at the age of 80, he left a legacy of which few outside his circle of family, friends and business acquaintances were cognizant.
The son of a proud and wealthy black Indi an rancher, Simmons became America’s first African-American major oil broker, negotiating deals both in the United States and abroad, amassing a personal fortune. He was also a civil rights activist who used his influence to effect change in his home state “Staking a Claim” (Atheneum), the recently released biography of Simmons, is the end re sult of six years of labor by Greenberg. During that period, Greenberg. 31, lived in Oklahoma for a year, interviewed numerous relatives, friends and associates of Simmons, traveled to Africa and Europe, and spent countless hours in various libraries.
Simmons came from a long line of leaders. His great-grandfather, Cow Tom, was a stave who became an interpreter for a leader of the Creek Indian tribe.
Cow Tom went on to become the first black chief of the Creek tribe. After the Civil War, he negotiated a treaty that accorded thousands of freed blacks extensive economic and political rights.
It was this tradition of family excellence and leadership that drew Greenberg to Simmons’ story.
“I was attracted to him as a person and what his experience represents in U.S. history,” Greenberg said. “(The Simmons family) was at the height of black power in each generation in the one part of North America where blacks were enfranchised after the war the way they were originally intended. What you had was a microcosm which was able to posit what might have occurred in the rest of the United States had there been a real reconstruction and enfranchisement of African-Americans into the American system.
“From that foundation, Jake became one of the most exceptional civil rights leaders and entrepreneurs in American history,” he’ said.
Greenberg said he also admired Simmons’ values and integrity.
“He didn’t make it in an industry geared toward blacks, but in a community in the larger part of the economy,” Greenberg said. “He made his fortune and he didn’t forget where he came from.”
Simmons studied at the Tuskegee Institute and worked briefly as a machinist at the Packard auto factory in Detroit. He moved back to his hometown in 1920 and started brokering oil leases in Oklahoma and Texas for black farmers who were afraid of being taken advantage of by the major oil companies. He also added a real estate agency to his oil business, the Simmons Realty Company, to further maximize opportunities.
His oldest son, Jake Ill, was America’s first black geological engineer. When Jake III, or JJ. as he is called, joined the family business in 1949, the company opened a drilling operation.
Simmons was adept at networking and developing valuable business and political contacts. He forged a business relationship with Phillips Petroleum, initially by selling leases or small amounts of crude to them. But in 1963, Simmons landed a major deal for Phillips by
negotiating a mineral concession from the Nigerian government that would allow Phillips to set up an exploration franchise in that country.
Despite his business success, Simmons and his family still experienced racial discrimination. Simmons, who was president of the Oklahoma NAACP during the early 1960’s, spent most of his adult life fighting to address the imbalances in a racially polarized society.
Residential integration, school desegregation and legislative equality were some of the major issues Simmons worked to effect change. As a capitalist, he firmly believed that hard work was rewarded and that an oppressed people given an opportunity would try to better themselves.
Simmons himself hired people to work, for him if they expressed a real and sincere need. He eventually “became known to blacks across eastern Oklahoma as a man who would find employment for anyone willing to work, even if he had to call the governor to arrange it,” according to the book.
Privacy is a highly valued commodity to the Simmons family and it took much persuasion on Greenberg’s part to convince Simmons’ heirs to talk. (The family still owns and runs an oil operation in Africa.)
A two-page Forbes magazine article about Simmons was published in 1982, one of the first profiles on a black entrepreneur in the publication’s 63-year history. Greenberg was never able to pin down Simmons’ exact worth, so the magazine did not put Simmons on their 400 richest list.
Greenberg soon realized he had scraped “the tip of an intriguing iceberg.” He resigned from his reporting position at Forbes and moved to Oklahoma, hoping to gain the Simmons’ family permission and cooperation in writing a biography.
“It was a risk because both Simmonses, Donald and J.J. III (two of Jake’s sons) were very skeptical and hesitant at first to trust their life story with someone who wasn’t part of their family,” Greenberg said in a telephone interview from Muskogee, where he was promoting the book.
Donald Simmons, who is currently the Interstate Commerce Commissioner under the Bush Administration, was a particularly tough sell.
Greenberg said when he initially approached Donald about doing the book, Donald “felt very wary about talking with me” and declined.
Greenberg returned the following day and waited a whole day to see him.
“It was a really long process and the information I got from him (initially) wasn’t worth anything,” he said. “He was very reticent at first and said he really needed to see things on paper.”
Writing the book was “a step-by-step process,” but Greenberg said he believed the
Forbes article helped earn him a measure of trust from the Simmonses. The family “ended up respecting the job that I did and my perseverance. . .”
Researching the material for the book was painstaking work. Getting access to international business records, particularly those in Africa, was “like extracting teeth.”
Writing a biography of a person who was deceased also posed a major challenge. Since Simmons was not famous during his lifetime and fiercely valued his privacy, there were few written records about his life. A lot of the information for the book was reconstructed
from oral history and, according to Greenberg, working in that medium was “the largest obstacle” in writing the book.
“Staking a Claim” is Greenberg’s first book. Although he says writing it was overall a positive experience, he does not have any immediate plans for another. He does freelance writing and some of his investigative feature writing has appeared in such publications as New York magazine, the New York Times and Mother Jones.
Greenberg said response to the biography has been positive at book signings in Sim mons’ hometown.
“People are having me sign the book to their children and grandchildren,” he said. “That really makes me feel that this is a part of their history.”
Greenberg, who described the project as a “large venture” (he said the book cost him triple what he got for the advance), said “the commercial success is a hard thing to gauge, but in terms of individual fulfillment and the feeling that I’ve done something worthwhile, I feel wonderful.”