Some leave their mark as musicians, actors or politicians, but for Philip Simmons, it would be his ironwork that propelled him to prominence. So profound was his decorative pieces of ornamental iron that he was hailed the most celebrated of Charleston ironworkers of the 20th Century.
Simmons’ good fortune was that he was sent to Charleston (via the ferry), to live with his mother when he turned eight having been born on June 9, 1912, in Wando on Daniel Island in South Carolina and raised by his grandparents.
In Charleston, he earned pennies shining shoes and selling newspapers but when he turned 13, Simmons apprenticed himself to Peter Simmons (no relation), who was born a slave in 1855 and had learned the trade from his father, Guy Simmons.
It helped that the Charleston neighborhood was a Mecca for craftsmen spanning blacksmith shops, pipefitters, shipwrights and coppers. Peter operated a busy shop at the foot of Calhoun Street in Charleston.
According to Simmons, “I liked to see sparks and the fire, and hear the hammer ring,” and so committed was he to learn the craft that in 1930, he became a full-fledged blacksmith.
When Peter was ill, Simmons, who was now in charge of the shop, successfully repaired three huge metal tubs for the Johnson Coal Company and made his first blacksmith salary of $17.50, a jump from $4.00.
Simmons would, however, etch his name in history when he decided in the late 1930s to shift his attention from blacksmithing to decorative wrought iron. The first decorative piece that he made in Charleston is installed at 9 Stolls Alley, and “it exemplifies the local style of ornamental wrought ironwork in the city,” according to a report by the National Endowment for the Arts.
“Topped by an overthrow of spear points, it has S and C scrolls, two of the major motifs in the Charleston tradition,” the report added.
Simmons has also worked on several decorative pieces, including gates, fences, handrails, window grills, and balconies. He fashioned more than five hundred decorative pieces of ornamental wrought iron.
In 1982, the National Endowment for the Arts awarded Simmons its National Heritage Fellowship, the highest honor that the United States can bestow on a traditional artist. This was followed by a similar award from the South Carolina state legislature for “lifetime achievement” and commissions for public sculptures by the South Carolina State Museum and the city of Charleston, according to his website.
Simmons was inducted into the South Carolina Hall of Fame in Myrtle Beach, SC on January 31, 1994. “The Order of the Palmetto”, South Carolina’s highest award, was presented to him on August 11, 1998, by Governor David Beasley. In 2001, Simmons received the Elizabeth O’Neill Verner Governor’s Award for “Lifetime Achievement in the Arts.” On May 12, 2006, he was the recipient of the Honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts by South Carolina State University in Orangeburg, his website added.
Pieces of his work have been acquired by the National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution; the Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe, NM; the Richland County Public Library, Columbia, SC, and the Atlanta History Center, Atlanta, GA.
Officially retiring at age 75, Simmons continued to teach his craft to younger artisans late into his life. He passed away on June 22, 2009, at the age of 97. He was a widower and left behind two children.
A documentary on Simmon’s life titled Keeper of The Gate won the 1995 Southeastern Regional Emmy Award in the category of Cultural Documentary.