The predecessors of Simmons Bible College date to 1879, when the General Association of Colored Baptists in Kentucky opened the Kentucky Normal and Theological Institute on a 2.5 acre plot at Seventh and Kentucky streets in Louisville. The Association (now called the General Association of Kentucky Baptists) was established in 1865, and in 1915 at the time of its golden jubilee included Baptist churches in Louisville, Lexington, Frankfort, Georgetown, Danville, Maysville, Paris, Nicholasville, Harrodsburg, Elizabethtown, Versailles, Shelbyville, New Castle, Keene, Bridgeport, Stamping Ground, Cynthiana, Winchester, Lebanon, Bloomfield, Lancaster, Stanford, Bardstown, Simpsonville, Washington, Mayslick, Paint Lick, Mortonsville, Somerset, and Athens, Kentucky. The 1885 minutes of the General Association state its mission as promoting "the purity of doctrine and fellowship," forwarding Sunday school and missionary work, and establishing "a Normal and Theological Institutes."
E. P. Marrs served as the first principal of the Kentucky Normal and Theological Institute, which in 1884 changed its name to State University.
Other activities of the General Association included publication of the Louisville-based American Baptist newspaper (founded 1879), at the offices of which the school's catalogues were published. By 1881-1882 the Normal and Theological Institute catalogue listed a new president, William J. Simmons and the course included a model school, a normal school, an academic department, and theological training. Classes were offered in theology, Greek, mathematics, Latin, English, and vocal and instrumental music. The school and the Association boasted of good relations with white Baptists in Kentucky and white people generally in Louisville, which city was called "an important railroad center and the gateway between the South and the West." In 1919 the name changed to Simmons University, in honor of William J. Simmons, president from 1880-1881 to 1889-1890.
During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, State University offered courses ranging from grammar school to professional training. During the 1880s, State University was coeducational and not exclusively academic in its offerings. In 1883-1884 the catalogue reported an industrial department with 21 students taking classes in sewing, crocheting, knitting, embroidery, shoe making, chair caning, cooking, and printing. Young women in the cooking class were prepared "to serve themselves in their own home," not "to make cooks for hire." Other industrial classes introduced in the 1880s included printing, photography, telegraphy, and carpeting.
During its first decade of existence the University also offered classes in business, missionary and social work, music, law, and a correspondence course for ministers. During the 1880s the school included a missionary department to train students for "efficient service" in foreign, home, and city fields, while the school's Sunshine Social Center offered "advantages in practical training for Social Service Work." During the 1890s and 1900s, State also offered a law course through Central Law School, awarding LL.B. and LL.M. degrees. In 1919-1920 the catalogue reported that "all graduates of our school who have taken the bar examinations have passed successfully."
From the beginning State University included a theological department, which trained some of the outstanding Baptist preachers of Kentucky, including Charles Henry Parrish, Sr., president of the school from 1918 to 1931. Although in 1881-1882 the catalogue claimed that religious instruction was not "strictly sectarian, narrow and limited, but general, with the hope of winning souls to Christ," in 1914 the minutes of the General Association included the following report: "Last year as we have been forced to do in other days we were either compelled to dismiss classes or use the services of those not of our fold for a short time to teach subjects which in no way touched upon, either the doctrine of the Bible or the polity of the church. This was only temporary and as soon as the exigency was over teachers of our own faith were employed and would have been employed at first had they been available. We regret the little incident has caused such a heated discussion among some of our brethren and it might have been understood had we been approached personally rather than magnifying our embarrassment."
Rules governing student behavior reflected the strict standards of conduct required by the Negro Baptist school. The 1881-1882 catalogue directed each student to further "the elevation of man and the glory of God" required church attendances unless excused by the president; prohibited profanity, gambling, fire arms, "the use of tobacco in any form," drinking, and "attendance at any place of amusement of corrupt influence." Male students (and presumably females) could not room in places not approved by the president; "the association of the opposite sexes" was disallowed; all bills were due at the end of the month; students took turns caring for the buildings and grounds; and "parents or guardians having friends in the Institute" were required "to send all money to the President." This rule was to be "promptly observed" since "too much spending money teaches the student extravagance."
The school encouraged a spirit of egalitarianism by forbidding women to wear expensive attire, encouraging students to work, requiring everyone to contribute to the upkeep of the buildings and grounds, controlling spending money through the presidents and directing all gift packages of food to the common dining table.
By the 1920s during the administration of president Charles Henry Parrish, Sr. extracurricular activities included intercollegiate football, basketball, and baseball for men, and basketball for women.
Most students came from Kentucky, but the residence chart in the 1908-1909 catalogue listed other states and foreign countries, including South Africa.
After the one-year administration of E. P. Marrs, who served as principal of Kentucky Normal and Theological Institute in 1879-1880, William J. Simmons became president of the school, serving from 1880-1881 until 1889-1890. Simmons died soon after resigning the presidency. During thea dministration of President Parrish, the name of State University changed to Simmons University in honor of William J. Simmons. Parrish was another of the distinguished associates of the school. Born a slave in Lexington, Kentucky, in 1859, he came to State University as a student. Parrish later served as president of Ekstein Norton Institute in Cane Spring, Kentucky, and pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in Louisville before he became president of State University in 1918. He held the presidency until 1931, and his sons Charles Henry Parrish, Jr., also taught at Simmons University, the Louisville Municipal College, and finally at the University of Louisville. Although many State University faculty members held advanced degrees from black universities in the South and from integrated schools in the North or in Europe, an unusual number were graduates of the school at which they later taught.
In 1879 when the General Association of Colored Baptists acquired the Seventh and Kentucky site that became State University apparently only one building stood on the lot. In 1881 the General Association heard a report that "the building has been found to be entirely inadequate for the accommodation of the students attending last year, and will prove more so in the future, unless, improvements are made." The next year the Association learned that "upon careful investigation" the trustees of the school decided "to raise the roof of the main building and to add an additional story, to contain eight rooms and a hall." State made gradual additions to its property on and around the southwest corner of Seventh and Kentucky.
One of the most significant additions to the University's property at Seventh and Kentucky came in 1924, when a new boys' dormitory was added. The trustees had first campaigned for the new addition among African American Baptist churches in Kentucky, but met with little response. Eventually, the school borrowed $60,000 from the Louisville Trust Company, part of which went toward the building's construction. The loan also placed all the school's obligations, which by this time were apparently burdensome, in the hands of one creditor. Black architect Samuel Plato submitted the plans for the dormitory, bids went out, and the trustees accepted the lowest--$82,760 from Mr. Plato. Ground was broken on May 26, 1924, and the cornerstone laid on July 27.
The fund-raising campaign for the boys' dormitory and the consolidation loan from Louisville Trust Company signalled the financial problems of Simmons University, which grew worse during the late 1920s and early 1930s. The school had never been wealthy. During the 1920s, various schemes to increase Baptist support failed, including a plan in 1926 to collect $1.00 from each of the 90,000 (black?) Baptists in Kentucky to meet the school's $85,000 debt.
Simmons University, as it had operated for over fifty years, ceased to exist during the early 1930s. The school's property was sold to the University of Louisville, which opened the Louisville Municipal College for Negroes (later called the Louisville Municipal College of the University of Louisville) there in 1931. The Municipal College offered undergraduate degrees in the arts and sciences until the University of Louisville was integrated on all levels and the segregated division closed in 1951. Meanwhile, Simmons University moved to Eighteenth and Dumesnil streets, where it became Simmons Bible College and continued to offer a theological course. Charles Henry Parrish, Jr., son of the former president of Simmons, who taught at the black Baptist School during the 1920s, later became professor of sociology at the University of Louisville's Louisville Municipal College, and finally chairm of the Department of Sociology at the University of Louisville. Although no official kinship existed between the old Simmons University and the new Louisville Municipal College, the African American division of U of L took up some of the non-theological courses previously taught at Simmons, and, along with Kentucky State College in Frankfort, undertook to provide undergraduate education for Kentucky blacks until the integration of undergraduates graduates and professional programs at the University of Kentucky and the University of Louisville during the late-1940s and early 1950s.