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Red Stained

Red Stained

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The Life of Hilda Simms

Jokeda "JoJo" Bell

Minnesota Historical Society Press (September 2024)

Black actress and activist Hilda Simms was a rising star on the stage and screen in post–WWII America until accusations of un-Americanism and communist sympathies derailed her career.


Hilda Simms emerged as an actress at a time when segregation was deeply entrenched in Hollywood and on Broadway. Black performers were mostly relegated to bit parts, stereotyped characters, or comic-relief roles—if they were hired at all. After joining Harlem's American Negro Theatre in 1943, Simms became immersed in a vibrant community of African American performers, writers, and other artists. Over the next two decades, she helped to chart a path for Black actors who wanted to be considered serious dramatists and tell stories that spoke to the true experience of African Americans.

Born and raised in Minneapolis, Simms attended Hampton Institute (now University) in Virginia before moving to New York City in her mid-twenties. She learned the ins and outs of the theater and dramatic acting from the all-Black theater group that produced such stars as Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte. The ethos of the American Negro Theatre was to stage plays that foregrounded the everyday lives of Black people and portrayed with honesty the complexities of being Black in America.

Simms's big break came in 1943 when she landed the title role in the American Negro Theater's adaptation of Philip Yordan's Anna Lucasta. The theater group took Yordan's story of a young woman from a middle-class Polish-American family and centered it around an African American family. It was a groundbreaking example of an all-Black cast performing a drama that did not center on issues of race. The play's popularity led to a move to Broadway, where it ran for two years to great acclaim, and performances in Chicago and London.

Simms went on to work in television and film, but despite the success, she struggled to land roles in which she could be taken seriously as a dramatic actress. She spoke increasingly openly about civil rights, and when she made sympathetic comments about the anti-racist policies of the Soviet Union, she gained the attention of the US Department of Justice. Her passport was revoked, forcing her to cancel plans to perform for American troops stationed in Europe. Effectively blacklisted from Hollywood, it marked the beginning of the end for her promising acting career.

Simms was an outspoken Black dramatic actress at a time when Black women—like Dorothy Dandridge, Fredi Washington, and Lena Horne—were beginning to break down barriers in Hollywood. Her rise to stardom was also concurrent with the emergence of Black actor-activists—as well as athletes and authors—who used their platforms to bring awareness to the injustice, violence, and denial of basic human rights that plagued Black Americans. She was at the forefront of the movement with the likes of Paul Robeson, Sidney Poitier, Ossie Davis, Alice Childress, and Ruby Dee, to name just a few.

Red Stained: The Life of Hilda Simms, the first full biography of her life and career, weaves primary research with a narrative style to tell the true story of Hilda Simms in the context of a nation gripped in the Cold War and a burgeoning civil rights movement. It is an examination of Simms's rise to fame, her drive to be a respected dramatic actress, and her efforts to create equal opportunities for people of color on stage, on the screen, and behind the camera. 

Author Information

Jokeda "JoJo" Bell is the executive director and the director of exhibitions and programming for the African American Interpretive Center of Minnesota (AAICM). Her roles within the organization have led to collaborative programming with institutions like the Minnesota Historical Society and the Minnesota Museum of American Art. She has also appeared as an expert in the Minnesota Historical Society's documentary, Storied: African Americans in WWI. In 2019, JoJo curated "The Builders" exhibition for AAICM, which was named one of the top ten art exhibitions of the year by the Star Tribune. Bell is a PhD student in the history department at the University of Minnesota. Her research interests include black women and land ownership in the Upper Midwest. She lives in Maple Grove, Minnesota.

  • Paperback
  • 240 pages
  • 9 in H | 6 in W
  • ISBN: 9781681342528

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