STAKING A CLAIM: Jake Simmons and the Making of an African-American Oil Dynasty by Jonathan D. Greenberg

STAKING A CLAIM: Jake Simmons and the Making of an African-American Oil Dynasty

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The biography of a fascinating American black whose intriguing background and productive life will more than repay readers willing to wade through the author's often overwrought prose. A former Forbes correspondent, Greenberg stumbled on the story of Jake Simmons, Jr., while researching the magazine's first listing of the 400 wealthiest US citizens. Though his subject died at 80 in 1981, he has managed with the help of surviving family members and archival sources to reconstruct the stormy passage of a rugged individualist. Born in 1901 near (of all places) Muskogee--in what was then the territory of Oklahoma--Simmons had a frontier childhood on his parents' prospering cattle ranch. A 1914 visit by Booker T. Washington took him to Tuskegee Institute. Back home in the early 1920's, Simmons fulfilled a boyhood ambition to enter the oil business, brokering leases for black farmers and, later, their white counterparts throughout the Southwest. Eventually, he moved onto a larger stage, acting as a middleman for such major multinationals as Phillips Petroleum and Texaco in West African nations, including Ghana, Liberia, and Nigeria. A lifelong civil-rights activist as well as a committed capitalist, Simmons in 1937 initiated one of the earliest school-desegregation suits to reach the Supreme Court; he was also among the first black delegates to represent his state at a presidential-nominating convention. And almost as absorbing are the annals of Jake, Jr.'s forebears. To illustrate, his maternal great-grandfather, Cow Tom, rose from slavery to become a chief of the Creek Indian tribe. Now, son Donald carries on the family oil business while one Harvard-educated brother teaches government at a West Coast university and another practices it in Washington as an ICC commissioner. Greenberg makes a generally good job of recounting Simmons' heritage, career, and legacy. In an apparent effort to prove himself a good and liberal fellow, however, he goes out of his way to portray the US in general and the Southwest in particular as racist societies. While there's probably no overstating the racial prejudice and barriers overcome by a world, class entrepreneur like Simmons, a bit more restraint would have quickened the narrative pace and accorded equal honor to a man whose accomplishments, fortunately, speak for themselves.

Pub Date: Jan. 11th, 1989
Publisher: Atheneum