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William Henry Simons was born in Washington, D. C. on June 1, 1924, one of eight children of Alfred Edgar Simons, Sr., a U.S. government messenger, and Mattie Garrett. He attended the public schools of the District of Columbia, graduating from Dunbar High School in 1940. He saw military service in Europe during World War II, reaching the rank of sergeant major in the 262nd Quartermaster Battalion and receiving the Bronze Star and the Croix de Guerre. After earning a B.S. degree from the historically black Miner Teachers College (later the District of Columbia Teachers College) in 1947, he began teaching social studies at Banneker Junior High School in Washington. In 1949 he acquired a master's degree from New York University and later held fellowships from Howard University and the City University of New York.
The early District of Columbia teacher unions, one of which was part of the founding group of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) in 1916, were racially segregated. Simons joined the black teachers union, Local 27, AFT, in 1952. The following year Local 27 merged with the white teachers union, Local 8, and the attendance officers local, 867, to form the integrated Local 6, AFT, Teachers' Union of Washington, D. C. (later, the Washington Teachers' Union— WTU). He served Local 6 as building representative, parliamentarian and financial secretary until his election as president in May of 1964. In November of 1965 Simons left his teaching position at Banneker to serve as full-time WTU president and continued to serve in that capacity, with a two-year hiatus from 1985 to 1987, until his retirement in 1991.
As president, Simons orchestrated WTU's victory over the much larger District of Columbia Education Association in the April, 1967 election to determine who would represent employees in collective bargaining negotiations with the Board of Education. He presided over the 1968 march on the Capitol by District teachers — their first walkout — to demand a pay raise from Congress, which set teacher salaries prior to the advent of Home Rule in 1973. He conducted two successful strikes in 1972 and 1979 and defused another in 1975. During the 1972 strike the union was fined $50,000 which, on Simons's suggestion, was used to set up a scholarship fund for D. C. graduating seniors that William H. Simons Collection 2 continues to this day. Under his leadership the WTU played a major role in the defeat of the tuition tax credit initiative in 1981.
In August of 1965 Simons was elected Vice President and member of the Executive Council of the American Federation of Teachers, where he served until internal disputes within the Progressive Caucus caused his defeat in the 1972 election. He subsequently became chair of the AFT's United Action Caucus, but ran again in 1976 at the invitation of the Progressive Caucus, winning more votes than any other candidate, and served until 1986.
Simons was a member of the D. C. Unemployment Compensation Board and the Democratic Central Committee of the District of Columbia and served as a delegate to the Democratic National Convention. He also held office in the Washington Urban League, the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, of which he was a founding member, the Metropolitan Washington Council, AFL-CIO and the Woodridge Civic Association, among others. He has been a frequent speaker and consultant on school-community relations and collective bargaining in education.