November: Simkins’ Thanksgiving Speech
One hundred and eight years ago this month, UT Law Professor “Colonel” William Stewart Simkins delivered a lecture that has since become famous during an early Thanksgiving day celebration on the University of Texas campus. Simkins was a member of the UT Law school faculty from 1899 until his death in 1929. What has become known as his Thanksgiving Day speech (1914) was so popular that he gave it again in 1915, and it was published in Alcalde alumni magazine in the following year. It became a UT Thanksgiving day ritual for years thereafter. For November’s calendar post, we consider this historical UT figure and his famous speech.
William Simkins was born in South Carolina in 1842. In 1856, Simkins joined The Citadel, a military college in Charleston, South Carolina. It was during his time at The Citadel that the first shots of the Civil War were fired. South Carolina was the first state to secede from the United States, doing so in 1860 following the election of President Abraham Lincoln. However, South Carolina was also home to three Federal forts: Fort Sumter, Fort Castle Pinckney, and Fort Moultrie. Simkins is reputed to be among the Citadel cadets who fired on Fort Sumter in the opening skirmish of the Civil War. Simkins subsequently joined the South Carolina Battery, was awarded the title “Colonel,” and was a member of the Confederate Army until the Civil War ended in 1865.
After the war, Simkins and his brother Eldred moved to Monticello, Florida where they organized the Florida chapter of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK). The brothers Simkins left Florida for Texas in 1873 and opened their own law firm in Dallas in 1875. William Simkins joined the faculty at the University of Texas Law School in 1899 while his brother served on the Board of Regents (1882–1893). William was known for his grizzled look and colorful personality and was the creator of UT Law’s unofficial mascot, the Peregrinus.
Simkins was well-known around UT for having fought for the Confederacy and for his participation in the KKK. According to legal historian Thomas Russell, one of Simkins’ first public accounts of his Confederate past and participation in the KKK was made on Confederate or Dixie Day in May of 1914. This impromptu speech was the basis for his Thanksgiving day speech later that year. In it he detailed his time as the organizer of Florida’s KKK and the racially motivated psychological, verbal, and physical assaults on Black people that he committed while in Florida. Simkins also justified his role in founding the KKK in the 1860’s, saying that: “We had to protect the women and children of the State against the ignorance and lust of the negro office-holders.”
Simkins gave his speech again on Thanksgiving day 1915. That same day the KKK, which had died down after the end of Reconstruction in the 1870s, was reborn nationally at Stone Mountain, Georgia. We have no evidence to directly connect William Simkins with the rebirth of the Klan in Texas. However, as Russell states: “Professor Simkins does deserve to be credited with having a hand in the twentieth-century renaissance of the Klan.”
In 1954, the University of Texas named its first air-conditioned dormitory for law school and graduate students after William Simkins. The luxury student residence, known as Simkins Hall, was built to house law and graduate students at the corner of San Jacinto and Dean Keeton streets. Two years later, when the University of Texas under-graduate program desegregated, the University opened two WW II surplus officers barracks as dormitories for Black men and anyone else who cared to reside with them. One of these was located next door to Simkins Hall at the present location of the San Jacinto Garage.
The timing of the naming of Simkins Hall is significant. The landmark Supreme Court case that ended segregation in education, Brown v. Board of Education, was litigated and won in May of 1954. Five weeks later “the faculty council of the University of Texas at Austin … voted to name the new dormitory after the professor of law and Ku Klux Klansman William Stewart Simkins.” This despite the faculty naming committee being aware of Simkins’ Klan past.
The name Simkins Hall graced the building until 2010 when the University of Texas Board of Regents changed it to Creekside Residential Hall at the urging of UT students, faculty, and staff. The removal of Simkins’ name from the dormitory was the first in a number of adjustments to the campus landscape made by the University of Texas to address its history and make it a more welcoming space for all. Scholarly research about our campus—in this case of Simkins and his disturbing November ritual—set this in motion and continues through the efforts of CCI.
 Thomas D. Russell, “‘Keep Negroes Out of Most Classes Where There Are a Large Number of Girls’: The Unseen Power of the Ku Klux Klan and Standardized Testing at The University of Texas, 1899-1999,” U Denver Legal Studies Research Paper No. 10-14 (March 22, 2010): 21, https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1583606
 The Daily Texan (Austin, TX). Simkins Gives Famous Lecture on ‘Ku Klux,’ November 28, 1914, 1, UT Libraries,
 Thomas D. Russell, “‘Keep Negroes Out of Most Classes Where There Are a Large Number of Girls’: The Unseen Power of the Ku Klux Klan and Standardized Testing at The University of Texas, 1899-1999,” U Denver Legal Studies Research Paper No. 10-14 (March 22, 2010): 17, https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1583606
 Racial Geography Tours. “Simkins and Creekside Residence Halls.” Accessed October 26, 2022. https://racialgeographytour.org/tour-stop/simkins-creekside-residence-hall/.
 Thomas D. Russell, “‘Keep Negroes Out of Most Classes Where There Are a Large Number of Girls’: The Unseen Power of the Ku Klux Klan and Standardized Testing at The University of Texas, 1899-1999,” U Denver Legal Studies Research Paper No. 10-14 (March 22, 2010): 35, https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1583606