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Simms, Hilda (1918–1994)

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Black and white photograph of Hilda Simms, c.1940.

A promotional photo taken early in Hilda Simms’s acting career, c.1940.

Raised in a large Catholic family in North Minneapolis, Hilda Simms became a national celebrity for her leading role in the first all-black performance of the Broadway show Anna Lucasta. Frustrated by her struggling career and the lack of roles for black actors, Simms worked as the creative director for the New York State Human Rights Commission to address racial discrimination in the entertainment industry.

Hilda Moses was born in Minneapolis on April 15, 1918, the first of nine children of Creole parents originally from Louisiana. She won a posture award while attending St. Margaret’s Academy in Minneapolis and was well known by her neighbors for being an excellent singer.

She began college as an English major at the University of Minnesota, where she also studied teaching, but had to quit due to financial concerns. She finished her bachelor’s degree at the Hampton Institute (later renamed Hampton University) while her first husband, Sergeant William Simms, was stationed in Camp Lee, Virginia, during World War II. At the institute, Simms assisted with a dramatic workshop that inspired her to pursue her own acting career.

At the age of twenty five, Simms moved to New York City and joined the American Negro Theater. She helped with sound effects, props, and publicity and landed a role in the play Three’s a Family. She also worked jobs performing in radio dramas to gain more experience.

In 1943, Simms’s career took off when she was cast as the lead in Philip Yordan’s Anna Lucasta. The play was about a middle-class woman’s fall into prostitution and her struggle to regain respectability and her family’s support. Though it was originally written for a white cast, the American Negro Theater’s adaptation was so popular that the show moved from Harlem to Broadway the following year. It was the first time that an all-black cast performed a widely lauded drama that did not directly address issues of race.

The success of Anna Lucasta earned Hilda Simms a review in Life Magazine and national fame. (In 2015, the Minneapolis Star Tribune reported that her mother refused to see the play when it opened because she disapproved of her Catholic daughter playing the role of a prostitute.) The production traveled on to Chicago and then London and ultimately ran for 956 performances. Simms’s acting career did not align with her husband’s corporate career, and they divorced in the early 1940s (though she kept his surname as her stage name).

While abroad, Simms married American actor Richard Angarola. The couple returned to the United States in 1953, when Simms was cast as Marva Trotter Louis in the movie The Joe Louis Story. Over the next decade, Simms acted in the television series The Nurses (1962—1964) and performed in other plays, including The Cool World (1960) and Tambourines to Glory (1963).

She grew increasingly frustrated at the limited number of roles that were available for black women. Those that did exist, Simms often thought, were racist and demeaning. She also told JET magazine that while her fair skin and features kept her from being cast in stereotypical black roles, her race kept her from playing any white characters.

Simms’s outspoken support of civil rights and alleged affiliation with the Communist Party in the early 1940s further impeded her career and placed her on the Hollywood blacklist. In 1955, the Department of Justice denied her passport and canceled her scheduled tour to visit U.S. Armed Forces stationed in Europe. She was not cast for either movie version of Anna Lucasta. In 1960, she wrote an article titled, “I’m No Benedict Arnold” for the Pittsburgh Courier and openly discussed these setbacks to her career.

Simms refocused her attention on political movements and served as Creative Arts Director for the New York State Human Rights Commission in the 1960s. She went on to get a master’s degree in education from City College and worked for drug treatment programs in New York City. She died from pancreatic cancer in 1994 at the age of seventy five.

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African American Registry. Hilda Simms, Actress and Black Talent Supporter.
http://www.aaregistry.org/historic_events/view/hilda-simms-actress-and-black-talent-supporter

"'Anna Lucasta': Hilda Simms and All-Negro Cast Perform First Worth-while Drama of the Season to Reach Broadway." LIFE, October 9, 1944.
https://books.google.com/books?id=B0IEAAAAMBAJ&pg=PA69

"Are Negro Entertainers Starving in Europe?" JET, April 9, 1953.
https://books.google.com/books?id=qrsDAAAAMBAJ

BlackPast.org. Simms, Hilda (1918–1994).
http://www.blackpast.org/aah/simms-hilda-1918-1994

Brown, Curt. "Hilda Moses Simms Went From St. Margaret's Academy to Broadway and Hollywood Blacklists." Minneapolis Star Tribune, May 17, 2015.
http://www.startribune.com/hilda-moses-simms-went-from-st-margaret-s-academy-to-broadway-and-hollywood-blacklists/304005451/

Capparell, Stephanie. The Real Pepsi Challenge: The Inspirational Story of Breaking the Color Barrier in American Business. New York: Free Press, 2007.

Curtis, Constance, and Adle Glasgow. “A Legitimate Theatre for Harlem.” Crisis 51, no. 10 (October 1944): 321.
https://books.google.com/books?id=01oEAAAAMBAJ&pg=PA305

Grimes, William. "Hilda Simms, Actress, Dies at 75; Broadway Star of 'Anna Lucasta.'" New York Times, February 8, 1994.
http://www.nytimes.com/1994/02/08/obituaries/hilda-simms-actress-dies-at-75-broadway-star-of-anna-lucasta.html

"Hilda Simms Named To Actors Equity Ruling Body." JET, May 16, 1963.
https://books.google.com/books?id=0sIDAAAAMBAJ&pg=PA59

"Hilda Simms to Star in One-Woman Stage Show." JET, September 17, 1959.
https://books.google.com/books?id=X0EDAAAAMBAJ&pg=PA60

IMDB. Hilda Simms Biography.
http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0799968/bio

“‘It’s a Mary Martin World,’ Says Puerto Rican Actress.” Des Moines Register, April 23, 1968.

Jones, Jae. "Hilda Simms: First Leading African-American Actress to Appear in Broadway Hit Production." Black Then, February 26, 2016.
http://blackthen.com/hilda-simms-first-leading-african-american-actress-to-appear-in-broadway-hit-production/

Leff, Joan. “New Star Hilda Simms Impresses Audience.” Barnard Bulletin, October 12, 1944.

Honey, Maureen, ed. Bitter Fruit: African American Women in World War II. Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 1999.

"TV Series Bring Hilda." JET, September 13, 1962.
https://books.google.com/books?id=b70DAAAAMBAJ&pg=PA60

"U.S. Lifts Travel Ban Against Actress Hilda Simms." JET, November 10, 1960.
https://books.google.com/books?id=8K4DAAAAMBAJ&pg=PA59

“U.S. Refuses Actress Passport: ‘I’m No Benedict Arnold,’ Cries Hilda Simms on Ban.” Pittsburgh Courier, September 10, 1960.

“VIDEO.” Arizona Republic, October 8, 1978.

Willis, John. Theatre World 1993–1994 Season. Vol. 50. New York: London Theatre Book Publishers, 1996.
https://books.google.com/books?id=jl3mugstqCcC&pg=PA245

Related Images

Black and white photograph of Hilda Simms, c.1940.
Black and white photograph of Hilda Simms, c.1940.
Black and white photograph of Hilda Simms posed for a photo in her dressing room, c.1943.
Black and white photograph of Hilda Simms posed for a photo in her dressing room, c.1943.
Black and white photograph of Hilda Simms with Earl Hollman and other actors from the Harlem Theater in New York City, c.1943.
Black and white photograph of Hilda Simms with Earl Hollman and other actors from the Harlem Theater in New York City, c.1943.
Black and white photograph of Hilda Simms (left) posed for a promotional photo for Life Magazine, c.1945.
Black and white photograph of Hilda Simms (left) posed for a promotional photo for Life Magazine, c.1945.
Black and white photograph of Hilda Simms with her mother, Lydia Moses during a photo shoot for Life Magazine, c.1950.
Black and white photograph of Hilda Simms with her mother, Lydia Moses during a photo shoot for Life Magazine, c.1950.
Black and white photograph of Hilda Simms (right) posed with one of her younger sisters, Laura, c.1955.
Black and white photograph of Hilda Simms (right) posed with one of her younger sisters, Laura, c.1955.
Black and white promotional photograph of Hilda Simms for the film Black Widow, 1954.
Black and white promotional photograph of Hilda Simms for the film Black Widow, 1954.
Black and white photograph of Hilda Simms surrounded by her mother, several of her siblings, and nephews, c.1955.
Black and white photograph of Hilda Simms surrounded by her mother, several of her siblings, and nephews, c.1955.
Black and white publicity photograph of Hilda Simms, c.1955.
Black and white publicity photograph of Hilda Simms, c.1955.

Turning Point

In 1943, Hilda Simms is cast as the lead in an all-black performance of the Broadway play Anna Lucasta.

Chronology

1918

Hilda Moses is born in Minneapolis on April 15.

1941

Moses marries William Simms in Minneapolis on August 15.

1942

Hilda Simms becomes a teaching fellow at Hampton Institute in Virginia and earns her bachelor’s degree.

1943

Simms moves to New York City and joins the American Negro Theater. She is cast as the lead in the American Negro Theater’s version of Philip Yordan’s drama Anna Lucasta that will continue to run for 956 performances.

1944

Anna Lucasta moves from Harlem and opens on Broadway on August 30, after receiving acclaimed reviews.

1947

The production of Anna Lucasta moves to London.

1948

On September 20, Simms marries her second husband, American actor Richard Angarola, in Sterling, Scotland.

1953

Simms returns to the United States to film The Joe Louis Story.

1954

Simms plays a hat-check girl in Black Widow.

1955

Simms’s scheduled fourteen-week tour of military bases in Europe is canceled by the Department of Justice.

1960

Simms writes an article for the Pittsburgh Courier titled “I’m No Benedict Arnold.”

c.1960s

Simms works as the Creative Arts Director for the New York State Division of Human Rights.

1962

Simms plays a neurologist on the television show The Nurses.

1994

On February 6, Simms dies of pancreatic cancer at her sister’s home in Buffalo, New York.