Washington Simms, a caterer, and Elizabeth Simms, a domestic servant, lived in Cincinnati, Ohio, and had 10 children. Four of their children were enlisted in the U.S. Army during World War I, including Leander, Lucien, Robert and Waddell. To celebrate their wartime service, another brother named Eugene loaned their portraits for display in the Allied War Exposition.
In the early 20th century, very few professional occupations were open to African Americans, and most of the Simms family members were employed in various Cincinnati service industries. They worked as butlers, waiters, chauffeurs, doormen and maids. Service in the Army offered new opportunities for these brothers, but a career in the military presented its own set of discriminatory barriers.
At least one of the Simms brothers was a member of an Army combat division. According to the inscription on the back of his portrait, Waddell served on one of the only two African American combat divisions during World War I, the 92nd Division of the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF). Robert, Leander and Lucien likely served in AEF divisions that performed manual labor to support the Allied front line, as did the majority of African American men who served in the War.
After their service, some of the Simms brothers continued to work in service industries. Leander, however, became a teacher at the Frederick Douglass School, a Cincinnati elementary school dedicated to giving African American children an education that would improve their professional, political and economic prospects.
(Top left: Leander Simms , Top right: Lucien Simms, Bottom left: Robert Maxwell Simms , Bottom right: Waddell Simms)