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Simms, Hilda (1918-1994)

Image Ownership: Public Domain

Hilda Simms was born Hilda Moses to Emile and Lydia Moses in 1918 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. She briefly studied teaching at the University of Minnesota before relocating to New York where she met and married William Simms and gained professional acting experience at Harlem's American Negro Theater.

In 1943, two years after dissolving her marriage to William, Simms made her debut in the title role of the theatrical play Anna Lucasta, becoming the first leading African American actress to appear in the Broadway hit production. Originally written for an all-white cast, Simms portrayed a middle-class woman struggling to regain her respectability after falling into a life of prostitution. The theatrical version of Anna Lucasta is considered the first drama featuring African American actors to explore a theme un-related to racial tensions. When the play toured abroad, Simms maintained the title role while enjoying a dual singing career in Paris. During the British tour of the play, Simms met and married actor Richard Angarola.  

The couple returned to the states in the 1950s and Simms embarked on a brief film career.  Her first role was as co-star to heavy-weight boxing champion Joe Louis.  She played the boxer' wife in The Joe Louis Story (1953). Her only other movie role was that of the hatcheck girl in Black Widow (1954).

Simms believed she was blacklisted in Hollywood in the 1950s because of alleged communist affiliations.  In an article titled "I'm No Benedict Arnold," which appeared in the Pittsburgh Courier in 1960, Simms reported that the U.S. Defense Department notified her that the Department of Justice denied her passport in 1955 and canceled her scheduled 14-week USO tour of the Armed Forces in Europe. Simms, who had entertained troops and made War Bond tours during World War II, felt the Defense Department decision and perhaps dozens of other lost opportunities during that period came from speculation about her affiliation with the Communist Party in the late 1930s and early 1940s.

Unable to continue her film career, Simms continued her stage career and obtained her own radio program known as Ladies Day on New York's WOV. She also became an active participant in political movements, serving as the creative arts director for the New York State Human Rights Commission where her commitment brought discrimination against black actors to the public attention and helped usher in better film roles for luminary African American actors of the era.

Hilda Simms died of pancreatic cancer in February of 1994.

Sources:
Hilda Simms Papers, New York Public Library Schomburg Center for Research; William Grimes, “Hilda Simms, Actress, Dies at 75; Broadway Star of Anna Lucasta,” New York Times, February 8, 1994; “U.S. Refuses Actress Passport; ‘I’m No Benedict Arnold,’ Cries Hilda Simms on Ban,” Pittsburgh Courier, September 10, 1960.

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