Historian. Simkins was born on December 14, 1897, in Edgefield, the son of Samuel McGowan Simkins and Sarah Raven Lewis. He attended school in Edgefield and in 1918 received his B.A. from the University of South Carolina. He attended Columbia University in New York City and earned his M.A. in 1920 and a Ph.D. in 1926. In 1928 he accepted a position at Longwood College in Farmville, Virginia, and remained there until his retirement in 1966, except for various positions at other institutions as a visiting professor. He built a reputation as an excellent teacher by challenging his students to think for themselves. On August 16, 1930, Simkins married Edna Chandler, and they later divorced. On June 7, 1942, he married Margaret Robinson Lawrence. The marriage produced one son, Francis Butler Simkins, Jr.
Simkins’s contributions to the field of southern history were enormous. Two themes recurred in his writing: the South ought to be treated on its own terms; and the South possessed cultural characteristics that were different from those of the rest of the nation. In the 1927 Journal of Negro History, Simkins exposed the violence and pretensions of “chivalry” in the Ku Klux Klan. In 1932 he won the Dunning Prize for South Carolina during Reconstruction, in which he and his coauthor Robert Woody argued that during Reconstruction, although African Americans were allowed to exercise their right to vote, whites continued to dominate the majority of southern institutions. In 1936, well in advance of other gender studies, Simkins wrote The Women of the Confederacy in collaboration with James Patton. In 1938 Simkins delivered a provocative paper, “New Viewpoints of Southern Reconstruction,” to the Southern Historical Association, in which he exhorted the cultivation of “more moderate, saner, perhaps newer views of [t]his period.” Hints of this attitude came as early as 1921 in the South Atlantic Quarterly article “Race Legislation in South Carolina,” which stated that Republican legislators “instituted radical reforms in education, which South Carolina, radical or conservative, has never seen fit to repudiate.” In this early paper he contradicted the prevailing assumption of innate African American inferiority. In Pitchfork Ben Tillman, completed in 1944, Simkins presented the extreme racism of Tillman without judgment, despite his disagreement with it. In 1947 Simkins wrote The South, Old and New: A History, 1820–1947, which became a major textbook for southern history. It was revised in 1953 as A History of the South. In 1954 the profession honored Simkins for his scholarship by electing him president of the Southern Historical Association.
While Simkins was intellectually progressive, he nevertheless maintained emotional ties to white southern traditionalism. He looked with disapproval on the shameful treatment of African Americans, but liberal critics thought that he did not move fast enough. He felt that the South should arrive at its own solution for race and criticized federal activism in securing civil rights, but conservatives attacked him as a revisionist. When the momentous events of the 1950s and 1960s challenged the traditional order in the American South, Simkins rediscovered much in the old to be conserved and became a spokesperson for the status quo. Therein lies an irony in the full circle of his life. For decades Simkins worked to revise the face of the South in history. His pioneering work on race relations was one of the major intellectual forces that helped set in motion the civil rights movement. In the end, Simkins was unable to keep pace with the very changes that he had helped engineer. He died on February 9, 1966, in Farmville, Virginia.
McWhiney, Grady. “Historians as Southerners.” Continuity 9 (fall 1984): 1–31.
Obituary. Journal of American History 53 (September 1966): 439. Obituary. Journal of Southern History 32 (August 1966): 435.