Raised in a large Catholic family in 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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