JOHANNESBURG—For many black Americans, Professor Ken Simmons was the father of the African-American community in South Africa — not just because of his 77 years or because he had been coming here longer than just about every other member of that group. His leadership was by example.
By the time Simmons died in July after a battle with cancer, he had become the role model for African Americans adopting South Africa as their homeland. During increasingly infrequent visits to the United States, three weeks was about his limit before he began feeling ''homesick'' for South Africa. He would also recall trying to dissuade certain African Americans from going there. ''Those bloods would be up to no good in South Africa,'' he said. ''So when they would ask, how was life here? I would lie and say, 'No, brother, you don't want to live there. It's awful, really bad.'''
Although he came to South Africa to stay in 1996, he had visited several times in previous years. The seeds for uprooting a full life in the United States to move to South Africa had been planted many years before. His appetite was first whetted in his staunchly Pan-Africanist and affluent family. Simmons' father, Jacob, was virtually the only successful African-American oil company owner in America during the early 20th century. He was born in 1901 to the granddaughter of Crow Tom, one of the few black chiefs of a Native American tribe in the United States. Jacob was personally recruited to attend Tuskegee Institute by its legendary founder, Booker T. Washington.
Kenneth Harlan Simmons was born June 28, 1933, in Muskogee, Okla., to Jacob and Eva Simmons. Simmons earned a bachelor's degree in biology from Harvard University in 1954 and an architecture degree from the University of California, Berkeley in 1963. He practiced architecture and later taught at Berkeley. His family's ties to Africa were deep. Jacob Simmons made several trips to West Africa to facilitate the entry of American oil companies there.
South Africa has overtaken Ghana as the preferred point of return for African Americans living on the continent. An estimated 3,000 now call South Africa home. African Americans have been coming to South Africa for more than 150 years — first as missionaries, then sailors and educators, and later in business and the professions. In recent decades, they have come for a variety of reasons, but most feel the pull of Africa as well as the push from America.
Kenneth Simmons II, a prominent businessman, says this applied to him and his father. ''We felt the attraction of wanting to contribute to a young, African democracy, he said. ''There was also something of wanting to leave the United States behind.''
Professor Simmons learned about South Africa from several expatriates living in exile in the United States during apartheid. Willie Kgositile, South Africa's poet laureate, was one of the first South Africans Simmons met in the 1960s. ''He was seriously involved in progressive politics, especially those of Africans and the Diaspora,'' recalled Kgositile. ''He also was seriously involved in community development and establishing affirmative action for minority businesses in California. Involvement in the struggle was what brought us together. He saw the South African struggle as part of his struggle, and I saw the struggle of African Americans as part of my struggle.''
Not long after Serote arrived to oversee the construction of Freedom Park, he asked Simmons to join him as a technical adviser. ''Ken took that very seriously. He always made constructive, positive interventions coming from technical aspects of architecture to the extent that we relied heavily on him. Many times he unraveled things which could have easily mystified us.''
Trevor Fowler, former CEO in the Office of the President of South Africa, shared many friends with Simmons during his time in exile but only came to know him once he moved to South Africa. ''There were many things I came to respect and admire about Ken,'' Fowler said. ''He had two overarching principles,'' Fowler continued. ''One was that he had a very passionate commitment about developing the potential of young black children in architecture and education generally. And secondly, Ken was passionate about bringing South Africans, Africans and African Americans together.''
These passions were on display during Simmons' last public presentation. He spoke at an education workshop at a Symposium of the South African American Partnership Forum — a new organization founded by South Africans and Americans to recapture the unprecedented people-to-people exchanges and support that reached their zenith during the anti-apartheid era.
Simmons spoke of trying to help young black South African students at the University of Witwatersrand adjust to a mostly white environment that was hostile to them. ''They were often made to feel marginalized,'' Simmons told the crowd at the University of Johannesburg. ''They sometimes felt they had no right to be there.
''I did two things,'' Simmons said. ''First, I gave my students actual academic credit if they could demonstrate they were helping other students who were having problems. And then I would try to address their feelings of inadequacy. 'How many languages do you speak?' I would ask them. Almost always the black kids would say five, six or eight or nine.'
''Some of your teachers and fellow students who may try to make you feel like you are stupid — at the very most — speak two,'' he continued. ''Now tell me who is the bright one here, and who is not? To a person,'' Simmons concluded, "the students wound up responding: 'I never thought of it like that.' "
To which Simmons would respond: ''Exactly!''
Kenneth Walker is an independent journalist from the United States who has made South Africa his home since 1999.