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Quiet Bill Finds His Voice

My name is William H. Simons.  I was born in Washington DC in 1924.  I am the fifth child of eight siblings.  We all had nicknames.  I was called "Silent Bill," because I didn't talk very much.  Those were very different times.  There were no automobiles in the family and when we wanted to go places, we would walk because there was no money for transportation.  You'd get to the movie, which was about 15, 20 cents, about oncee or twice a month.  I remember my grandfather used to come up frequently from South Carolina, and we'd always be glad when he came because he always had a couple of bags of food - rabbits, squirrels, chickens, turkeys, and vegetables that he would bring.  He was actually a lawyer.

I remember very vividly December 7th, 1941 I happened to be at the old Griffith Stadium where the Redskins were playing, and throughout the game, hey would make an announcement: "Colenel so-and-so, or General so-and-so, or Major so-and-so.  Officers, report to your headquarters now!"  Nobody knew what was happening, but after we got out of the game, we learned that Peral Harbor had been bombed.  On February of 1943, they came knocking on the door and said, "You've got to go!"  The army was still segregated at the time.  Being a black man in World War II was like being a black man in the United States.  It was no different.  We had all-white officers - no black officers in our units.  I was shipped out to England and on June the 2nd of 1944, we crossed the English Channel and as we got closer to France, we ran into gunfire and I thought, "This is it!"  But we made it.  We waded ashore and marched in and we set up our tents and that's where we stayed during the early days of the invasion of France.  Like everybody else, I had never faced gunfire before in my life and I was scared.  One night, I was in the tent at my typewriter when all of a sudden I heard - whsssssst!  And looked around and finally saw a hole in the tent, and the bullet was right back of my chair!  I was very lucky!  Each morning, I would say, "Well, I made it through the night!  Hope I can make it tomorrow."  I would write home almost every day and tell my family that I was still alive and that I'll be back one day.

After the war, I was hired as a teacher at Banneker Jr. High School and shortly after I was hired, I joined the teacher's union.  I became active in the union and began to see the discrepancies that existed between the white schools and the black schools in the city.  And also the fact that teachers didn't have any rights whatsoever.  So I became active with the union and was elected president in 1964.  The union did not have any bargaining rights at the time, and I'd go around talking with teachers.  I'd say, "Look - we're not going to change anything griping with each other in the teacher's lounge.  We need to get out in the halls, and get down in the office and register our gripes!"  Our first contract was signed in January of 1968, but the feeling was that we were not a union unless we go on strike! AND ON STRIKE WE WENT - shortly after the opening of school in 1972.  I didn't do it by myself.  It had to take the vote of the teachers to do that and that's why it was a successful effort.  The teachers had to buy supplies for students.  A newspaper asked one student what she thought about the strike, and she said, "I think the teachers are right to go on strike because they have to use their own money to buy books and papers and pencils for students."  And the reporter in his article ended up saying: "Pencils for Allison - that's why the teachers are on strike."  The students and parents were very supportive of the strike.  We never had any parents cross the picket line and try to oopen the schools.  They respected the strike.  They respected the picket lines.  That's because I had gone to many different community meetings and laid the groundwork and done the outreach, and it paid off!  We were on strike for three weeks, and we finally went back and as a result of the strike one hundred and fifty new teachers were hired, to reduce class size.  And we got books and supplies and other things that were needed.  It was a big victory!  We were able to accomplish that because the teachers stuck together.  There had been wonderful unity among the teachers and support from students and parents.  So you just don't go out on strike to just stop working.  You have a purpose in mind and you have to achieve your purpose.

Another great thing came out of the strike.  the union had been fined $50,000 for breaking the law and defying the "NO-STRIKE" clause.  But I said to the judge, "Judge - we ought to be able to find some way to use this fine money for the students, rather than give it to the U.S. treasury.  Maybe a Scholarship Fund could be established."  So we took that $50,000 and set up the Washington Teachers Union Scholarship Fund.  Every year now, two students receive $20,000 scholarships.  It came out of that strike and it still exists today -- THE ONLY Strike Scholarship Fund in the country!

In 1977, five years later, we went on strike again.  This time we knew what we were doing because they were trying to break the union.  That was in March of '77 and it was a cold Sunday, but 2,500 teachers showed up at the meeting to vote.  When I put the question, "Do we go back to work or do we hit the bricks on Monday morning?" they unanimously said, "We hit the bricks Monday morning!"  By the end of the week we got a settlement and added $90,000 to the scholarship fund.  I don't know to what extent the students really know the story behind that scholarship fund.

I miss those days of agitating.  I miss being out amongst people.  Even though my childhood nickname had been "Silent Bill."  When I went to a fifty-year reunion of the class of '57 from Banneker, one lady told the group at the table, "I never understood how this man - you could barely hear him when he was teaching his class, could get up and raise as much noise as he did when he was the president of the union."  I didn't know that I could do it, but after I got into it, it just came naturally.  When I took my job at Banneker, I never dreamed that I would one day become the president of that union, and remain its president for twenty-five years.  But you never know what's coming down the road for you.  What you have to do is make sure you are ready to meet any challenge, which comes up.  You do that and -- you'll make it!  And I hope the teachers today will get some more fire in their bellies again and rebuild the strength of the union.  There's still much more that needs to be done and I want to be in there fighting as long as I'm able to get up and put my clothes on in the morning and go where necessary in order to get the job done.  And one thing I want to add is that in June 6 of 2004, I was one of One Hundred Soldiers that was given the French Medal of Honor for the participation in D-Day, and helping to liberate France, from the government of France.  I went over to Paris at their expense, my wife and I went and we had a wonderful time.  That made me feel very, very, very proud.

 

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