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2008 News Releases

One of Longwood’s most eminent professors is subject of new biography

October 22, 2008

Book cover of Francis Butler Simkins: A Life

One of Longwood University’s most eminent and colorful faculty members is the subject of a recently published biography. 

Francis Butler Simkins: A Life, by James Humphreys, assistant professor of Southern history at Murray State University in Kentucky, chronicles the life of the nationally prominent scholar in Southern history for whom Longwood’s premier lecture series is named. The 258-page hardback, published by the University Press of Florida, evolved from the dissertation for Humphreys’ Ph.D., which he earned from Mississippi State University in 2005.

Except for stints at LSU (1948-51) and Princeton (1953-54), Dr. Simkins taught at Longwood from 1928 until his death in 1966 at age 68. He was president of the Southern Historical Association (SHA) in 1953-54. The Edgefield, S.C., native was the author of several books, most notably Pitchfork Ben Tillman: South Carolinian, a biography of a South Carolina governor and later U.S. senator, and South Carolina During Reconstruction, co-authored with Robert Woody of Duke University, which received the Dunning Prize from the American Historical Association. In 1975 the SHA honored Simkins by establishing, along with Longwood’s history department, the Francis B. Simkins Prize Award, given every other year for the best first book by an author in the field of Southern history over a two-year period.

“He was an excellent historian and a consummate scholar,” said L. Marshall Hall Jr., associate professor emeritus of history at Longwood, who was hired by Simkins in 1960 after the latter became department chair. “He completely changed the way historians thought about Reconstruction. He revised the interpretation and became the leading revisionist, with more and more people taking his view of Reconstruction. When you would attend a meeting of a historical society and people would look at your name tag, they would say ‘Oh, Longwood. That’s that school where Simkins teaches.’ He was a very funny and complex person.”

Simkins came to Longwood after teaching briefly at Emory University, the University of North Carolina and Randolph-Macon Woman’s College. He was a graduate of the University of South Carolina and had a master’s degree and Ph.D. from Columbia University. He is remembered fondly for his eccentricities, in addition to his scholarship.

“I knew how eccentric he was, but then as I looked into his career I found how outstanding an historian he was,” said Humphreys, who began researching Simkins in fall 2001. “I was surprised by how broad and eclectic his mind was. Sure, he was interested in Southern history, but he was interested in and knowledgeable about more than just that. For example, he had friends in New York City and Europe, and he traveled in Europe and Brazil in the 1920s. He had some exotic friends.”

One historian who knew him said “Anyone who ever heard Dr. Simkins lecture would never forget his staccato, passionate utterings and his whimsical sense of humor. He was an individualist, a non-conformist, always amusing and absolutely fearless in what he said.” Another colleague said Simkins had “ideas about the South that snap, crackle and pop.”

Humphreys’ dissertation was titled South Carolina Rustic: Francis Butler Simkins, A Life. “I spent the entire summer of 2002 at Longwood doing research for my dissertation, going through the Simkins papers,” he said. “My dissertation took three and a half years, and I spent another three years on revisions. I probably drove 10,000 miles in my car – to Farmville; Raleigh, Columbus, Georgia; Dallas; Mississippi; Lexington, Kentucky; and other places.”

Among those Humphreys interviewed was Simkins’ son, Francis Butler Simkins Jr., or “Chip,” a mortgage banker who lives in Virginia Beach. “Daddy’s mind was often somewhere else,” Chip Simkins said with a chuckle. Among his father’s eccentricities, he said, were bumping other cars while getting into or out of a parking place, hollering at people driving fast on High Street to slow down, and arising very early and going to Westview Cemetery in Farmville where he would write on an Underwood typewriter or read books or newspapers. “He would take a wooden step-stool and put his typewriter on top of the stool or on top of a tombstone. Months and months’ worth of issues of the New York Times, Richmond Times-Dispatch, Farmville Herald and Edgefield Advertiser would pile up in the car. He didn’t like radio or television, and once when the radio in the car was on, he banged the radio with his foot until it cut off.”

Dr. Simkins’ wife, Margaret Robinson Lawrence, who died in 1980, was a 1941 Longwood graduate. She and Simkins met when, as a widow, she was attending Longwood. She later taught eighth grade English at Farmville High School and Prince Edward Academy.

The author Humphreys, a native of Kinston, N.C., is a graduate of Campbell College and, in addition to his doctorate, has a master’s degree from North Carolina State University. He taught at U.Va.-Wise for two years and also for two years at Lambuth University in Tennessee before starting at Murray State this fall. “While working on the book, everyone at Longwood was very patient and helpful,” he said.