Celebrating the legacy of Philip Simmons

Symbols of famed blacksmith Philip Simmons’ work can be found throughout all three of the Berkeley County School District schools that were named after him: Philip Simmons Elementary, Philip Simmons Middle and Philip Simmons High.
In recognition of Black History Month, Philip Simmons’ family members joined the three schools named for him in celebrating his legacy, dedication and work ethic, as well as his knack for perseverance during a time of adversity.
The family history
Philip Simmons was born on Daniel Island in 1912 and was raised by his grandparents before he was sent to Charleston in 1920 to live with his mother.
He took an interest in the craftspeople in his neighborhood — particularly the work of Peter Simmons (no relation), who ran a smithy in downtown Charleston. After a five-year apprenticeship, Philip Simmons became a full blacksmith and started doing ornamental ironwork. His work is still highly recognized in Charleston. Throughout his career he created more than 500 separate pieces including iron balconies, window grilles, fences and gates.
Simmons retired at the age of 75 but continued to teach the craft to younger artisans. His work is featured around the world, and he received a number of awards and recognitions, including an honorary doctorate from South Carolina State University in 2006 for his contributions to the field of metalworking.
Simmons passed away in 2009 at the age of 97. Ladson resident Traci Thompson-Bryant is a grand-niece of Simmons, and also works with the Philip Simmons Foundation. She described Simmons as the patriarch of the family who raised her mom and her mom’s siblings. He considered Thompson-Bryant’s generation in the family to be his grandchildren, and she thus referred to him as “Grandad.”
“Everybody just looked to him for guidance,” she said. “He was a humble person, easy-going. You could talk to him about anything but he would tell you when you were wrong, so everybody just looked up to him because that’s the type of person that he was, and he loved his family — and he loved people.”
Simmons’ daughter, Lilian Gilliam, described her father as kind and humble.
She said the thing he loved the most besides his work was his three children “plus 100” – including the children of relatives, descendants and even neighbors.
Gilliam said he was active in different groups for children, such as the Boy Scouts, basketball teams and baseball teams.
“He made sure to tell the kids, if they got involved with it, he said ‘stick with it,’” she said.
His influence on the schools
Thompson-Bryant described how the family felt about Simmons having three schools named after him — thrilled, happy, honored, and proud, but a little sad because he was not alive to see it happen.
Family members participated in the schools’ ribbon-cutting ceremonies, toured the buildings and were invited to Black History Month programs.
Thompson-Bryant said the family is proud that his passion is recognized, especially since he was passionate about working with children.
“To see that they’re implementing and telling the kids a lot about him, if he was here he would be overjoyed,” she said.
Before being a part of the Philip Simmons school community, Anthony Dixon was familiar with Simmons’ artistry and craftsmanship.
Dixon is now the principal of Philip Simmons High, and the former principal of the middle school. When he took his position at the middle school, he was able to meet family members and learn about Simmons.
Dixon attributed Simmons’ local imprint and his impact beyond Charleston, and the legacy he created, to the reason the three schools were named after him. Dixon also compared the way the community is growing, and its impact on residents, to Simmons being just one person with “determination and a dream” who would end up impacting the greater community with something he loved to do.
“When we first opened the school, we committed to the family that we would always integrate the work of Philip Simmons … into our instruction,” Dixon said.
The high school is also the future stomping grounds for students at Cainhoy Elementary and Daniel Island School. Dixon said when the three Philip Simmons schools were created, the district was intentional in making his work known across the area, including at the Daniel Island and Cainhoy schools.
The high school, middle school and elementary school all have different items that reflect Simmons’ work. The hallways in all three schools have ornamental floor inlays at different intersections reflecting themes commonly found in his work.
The actual ironwork of the gates themselves are common themes for individual and group projects at the schools. For example, at the high school, Kate Sablotsky’s students participated in a local ‘Canstruction’ event in January, where they used nearly 6,000 cans to create an exhibit resembling Simmons’ gates. The cans were later donated to Lowcountry Food Bank.
Both the high school and the middle school have hallway murals depicting Simmons and his work. The high school’s mural is an ongoing project being tackled by art students, while one of the middle school murals was done by art students and another mural was completed by a graffiti artist.
The middle school students take a field trip to the Philip Simmons house in downtown Charleston each year to learn about his life. 
Charla Groves, principal at the middle school, said it is important for the students to understand the rich history within this corridor of the school district.
While it is important to understand his significance in the art world, Groves said his perseverance, dedication and belief in what he wanted to do was also important.
“It was just something that he never gave up on and (it) made a great mark for himself … not just in Charleston but all over the world,” she said.
Groves said she believes her school does a good job of helping students understand the significance of Simmons.
“I think there’s always an opportunity to do better, there’s always an opportunity to delve deeper and to learn more, but it is very important to us that we honor his legacy and that we really emphasize … perseverance and hard work and making sure that if you have a passion in life that you pursue it to the fullest and not allow any obstacles to get in the way,” she said.
When the elementary school opened, Principal LaToya King said the students learned about Simmons. Many school art projects displayed in the halls are a nod to the school’s namesake; one is a set of large pieces made of cardboard and black spray paint that serve as replicas of Simmons’ iron gates.
“As a STEAM school, of course, we know he did iron work and one of the things we stress here is student creativity (and) art in the curriculum as well as engineering in the curriculum, which all embodies the work that he did,” King said.
The elementary school’s Makerspace room bears his name as well; the room promotes creating and hands-on, innovative projects for students. King said the school tries to foster that creative mindset that Simmons had for students.
Walking through the school, it is evident the students are encouraged to display their learning in different ways. For example, the students in Analyn Haynes’s fourth-grade class created an interpretation of iron gates designed by Simmons with a set of cardboard “room gates.” Elizabeth Killian’s first graders recently created drawings of his gates that are on display outside the classroom. Students have also done a similar project with paper quilling in art class.
A lesson for students
Thompson-Bryant encouraged students to be inspired by Simmons’ background, and how he was self-taught.
“Despite whatever obstacles that come your way … don’t allow your circumstances to define what you can do,” she said. 
While his work became very well known, Thompson-Bryant said her grand-uncle still remained humble.
“He was a very humble man, and I think that’s one of the key things that young people and people in general need to know,” she said.
One thing that always stuck with Dixon when the schools were being developed was meeting with the family members and understanding Simmons’ history.
Simmons went to school at Buist Elementary – now known as Buist Academy. He went to school during a time of segregation and there was a fight for equality in the educational system.
Dixon doted on Simmons’ ability to stay committed and make a life off of his passion — and he did not even realize he was creating any sort of legacy, something Dixon said he wants his students to understand.
“We never know what we’re going to end up being, but we just have to commit to continue to work hard, and we can do whatever we want to do,” he said.
Thompson-Bryant said her grand-uncle lived by the motto: “If you want the Lord to answer your prayers, you got to get off your knees and hustle.”
“Things are not going to come to you if you’re just sitting there idle,” she said.

Daniel Island Publishing

225 Seven Farms Drive
Unit 108
Daniel Island, SC 29492 

Office Number: 843-856-1999
Fax Number: 843-856-8555


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