Kenneth Harlan Simmons, a professor emeritus of architecture at the University of California, Berkeley, died of cancer in Johannesburg, South Africa, on July 6 at the age of 77. He was known for his work in equal rights, urban planning and community development from San Francisco to Detroit, Harlem and South Africa.
Simmons was born June 28, 1933, in Muskogee, Okla. His father, Jacob Simons Jr., who attended the Tuskegee Institute and founded the Simmons Royalty Company, was considered the most successful African American in the history of the oil industry.
During Simmons’ summer breaks from high school and college, he worked as an oil field hand and tool dresser on family-owned oil drilling rigs.
Simmons earned a bachelor’s degree in biology from Harvard University in 1954 and a bachelor’s degree in architecture from UC Berkeley in 1969.
He joined UC Berkeley a lecturer in architecture in 1968 and became an associate professor there in 1969. Simmons played a lead role in helping the university to divest from South Africa and helped establish the Black Environmental Student Association at UC Berkeley.
Simmons also worked as an architect and planner. He was a partner with Ishimaru, Oneill and Simmons and the Community Design Collaborative, both in Oakland, Calif., and with the Bay Group Associates architectural, planning, environmental research and design firm in San Francisco.
Some of his most noted work included the Dock of the Bay restaurant near the Berkeley Marina, the Black Repertory Community Center in Berkeley, and the Robert Pitts public housing development in San Francisco.
While an architect and professor at UC Berkeley, Simons was appointed to the East Bay Municipal Utility District Board of Directors, where he helped to establish the district’s affirmative action program and contract equity program.
Simmons also was a director of the New Oakland Committee civic organization; co-director of the Architects Renewal Committee of Harlem, New York; coordinator for housing and community development for the San Francisco Equal Opportunity Council; and project director of the Urban America Hunts Point Multi-Service Center in South Bronx, New York.
“We were both on the faculty at UC Berkeley, where he was an inspiration to students and was of crucial practical help to many of them in following whatever goals they set out for themselves,” said Sara Ishikawa, one of Simmons’ Community Design Collective partners and a UC Berkeley professor emerita of architecture.
John Liu, a former UC Berkeley lecturer and a partner of Community Design Collaborative with Simmons in the 1980s, said Simmons inspired some of his own work in Taiwan involving social justice and community participation. “Right ideas have no boundaries,” Liu said.
Henry Ramsey Jr., a retired Alameda County Superior Court judge who met Simmons while Ramsey was a UC Berkeley law student, called Simmons “a powerful force for meaningful social and political change throughout his adult life.”
Shortly after retiring from UC Berkeley in 1994, Simmons began teaching at University Of The Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, first at the School of Town and Regional Planning and later at the School of Architecture. He also worked for the city planning department in Sandton, near Johannesburg.
At Witwatersrand, Simmons advocated for increasing the numbers of black students enrolling at the previously mostly white university. At a public speaking engagement, he recalled how he advised students: “First, I gave my students actual academic credit if they could demonstrate they were helping other students…And then I would try to address their feelings of inadequacy. ‘How many languages do you speak?’ I would ask them. Almost always, the black kids would say five, six or eight or nine.” Simmons said he would tell the students that some of their teachers and fellow students who might try to make them feel stupid speak two languages at the most.
Simmons loved jazz, books and art, and was well known for supporting community artists. He was a lifetime member of the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity.
Kenneth married his first wife, Christine Morgan, in 1955, and they had two children, Margot and Kenneth II. With Joyce Redmond, he had one daughter, Annette. He married Gloria Burkhalter in 1988, and they had one daughter, Jalia.
Simmons is survived by his companion, Sebiletso Mokone of Johannesburg; four children, Margot Simmons of Baltimore, Md.; Kenneth II of Johannesburg, Annette Redmond-Simmons of San Jose, Calif., and Jalia Burkhalter-Simmons of Oakland, Calif.; five grandchildren; and many nieces, nephews and friends.
A memorial service for Simmons will be held at 3 p.m. on Aug. 21 in the Newton-Seale Conference Room in the R-Building of Merritt College, 12500 Campus Dr., Oakland.