Celebrating the Legacy of Gideon Smith
Oct. 15, 2013
By Steve Grinczel, MSUSpartans.com Online Columnist | @GrinzOnGreen
Long before Don Coleman defied the odds to become Michigan State's first unanimous All-American in the face of racial intolerance 62 years ago...
Long before Gene Washington, Bubba Smith and George Webster helped eliminate segregation in college football by attracting the nation's brightest spotlight to the Spartan Stadium in the mid-60s...
Gideon Smith opened the door for African-American athletes at MSU.
Pushed it open, is more like it.
When Smith tried to join Michigan Agricultural College's freshman football team, Aggies coach John Macklin turned him away by refusing to issue him a uniform. Undeterred, Smith reported to practice anyway, wearing the high-school gear loaned to him by a classmate. Impressed by Smith's rugged play, Macklin allowed him to stay on, and in 1913 made him the school's first black varsity student-athlete.
The 100th anniversary of Smith's bold action was honored, along with his other achievements, during Saturday's Homecoming festivities commemorating the 500th game at Spartan Stadium.
John Milton Belcher III learned of his grandfather's exploits from yellowed newspaper clippings while sitting beside him on a leather recliner in his study. Smith's demeanor spoke volumes about how he must have carried himself while playing a violent game under turbulent circumstances.
"I remember my grandfather as the most gentle person I've encountered in my life," said Belcher, a project leader for a non-profit science and mathematics education organization serving a STEM and boys-of-color initiative in Boston. "I honestly never saw him angry, never saw him express any kind of irritation or impatience. My dad's (Smith's son-in-law) memory is the same.
"That is something I truly continue to reflect upon, just as I did as I grew into adulthood, because I still find it almost unfathomable knowing his story and knowing his journey. I'm trying to still wrap my head and my heart around how he could emerge from the types of challenges he faced, from all of his myriad encounters with racism, from the injustices that he encountered from all of the indignities, large and small, with that gentle nature intact, and the sense of humanity he had and the willingness to help the kind of differences he made in other's lives. That remains a huge question for me, and an inspiration."
Belcher presumed Smith intentionally avoided talk about the difficulties he encountered while expressing a positive narrative of his time as a MAC player.
"What I got was his love and enjoyment for the game, and a sense of his achievements on the field from those articles," Belcher said. "Michigan State's recognition of my grandfather is affirming and encouraging. Part of what it means to me is what I would imagine he would have felt because he was so proud of that affiliation, and sang its praises and his time there at every opportunity.
"The esteem in which the university holds him now is a reflection of the impact and the difference he made in the university's story, and the story of so many. We rarely get to the point where we can really experience, and know and have a good sense of the consequences of our actions, and if he was able to, I imagine how satisfying that would be for him."
Former Michigan State Athletics Director Clarence Underwood, who arrived on campus as a student from Gasten, Ala., 42 years later when racial inequality continued to rage across America, has a great appreciation for the trail Smith blazed for those who followed.
"When I first heard about Gideon initially being slighted, being denied, I was disappointed, but I wasn't shocked because of what I had experienced in the deep South and that was the culture he was in at that time," Underwood said. "There's no question that here was a man who had a mission.
"He was trying tell a story that I'm not going to be dissuaded, I'm not going to be denied. I've got skills, I am somebody worthwhile, I have that kind of confidence and I'm going to go through with it even though I'm being hurt by it. Now that talks a lot about a real man.
"I have to admire a man who went through it, and no matter how they treated him, went beyond that treatment and accomplished his goals. He reminds me of Jackie Robinson."
As a sophomore, Smith played tackle on MAC's team which was the first to beat Michigan, 12-7, and finish undefeated. Smith completed his career in 1915 with a 17-3 record and the admiration and gratitude of his teammates, his school and the community.
"If you wanted to have a bunch of aroused Aggies on your hands, all you had to do was make some slur at Gideon or throw a loose elbow his way," former Michigan State multi-sport star and administrator Lyman Frimodig once said. "Students used to walk Smith home on Friday nights before games to see that he arrived safely and got a good night's sleep."
Life away from home wasn't nearly as accommodating for Smith, who countered the ugly tentacles of prejudice with his punishing, but silent, play. All-American MAC running back Blake Miller used to say the racial epithets hurled across the line of scrimmage by opponents at Smith were un-repeatable.
Not allowed to check into the team's whites-only hotel on road trips, Smith would get off the train and ask Macklin what time practice would be held? With money provided by Macklin to pay for food and lodging in the local black community, Smith would not be seen by Aggies again except at practice, at the game and on the train ride back to East Lansing.
The media of the day had peculiar way of celebrating Smith's exploits.
After MAC's 75-6 victory over Akron in 1914, the Saginaw Courier-Herald singled Smith out with a headline that read: "Julian Makes Seven Touchdowns, While Negro Lineman Furnishes Thrill with Sprint for 95-Yard Gain."
The following season, Smith was instrumental in the Aggies' 56-0 victory against Carroll.
"Gideon Smith, the giant negro tackle of MAC, was in the limelight throughout the game," said The Lansing Press. "On one occasion, he intercepted a forward pass and ran 20 yards for a touchdown, and later he took the ball half the length of the field for another score. Throughout the game, he was called on to take the ball and never failed to gain."
In the subsequent 24-0 victory over the Wolverines by a score of 24-0 ─ memorialized by posters as "The Slaughter on Ferry Field" ─ in Ann Arbor, "Gideon Smith added to his enviable record by stopping play after play," reported a student newspaper. "He seemed to be in on every play and his presence meant death to Michigan's efforts."
Direct quotes attributed to Smith are scarce, but in a 1947 interview with The Lansing State Journal's George S. Alderton, Smith, then a graduate student at Michigan State, said, "They used to put me down for 200 (pounds) or 210 sometimes, but I actually never weighed over 180. If there's anything wrong with the present-day player, it's that he doesn't try hard enough ─ he saves himself too much."
After Smith's final college game, representatives of the greater Lansing area presented him with a gold watch for his contributions to what would eventually become known as Michigan State University.
"I know Gideon Smith was a hero on the football field," wrote the late MSU historian Madison Kuhn. "But I'd guess he had a lot of what many today call intestinal fortitude. It must have been tough for a black man in the early 20th century to survive in what was basically a white man's game. And Gideon Smith apparently survived very well."
Smith was born in Northwest Norfolk County, Va., on July 13, 1889, just 24 years after the abolition of slavery. While at MAC, he was widely regarded as the third African-American to play college football. He is listed among the first black players in professional football as well, and after leaving the Aggies he played alongside the legendary Jim Thorpe with the Canton Bulldogs, and against Knute Rockne of the Massillon Tigers.
Following his playing days, Smith served as the head football at Hampton Institute, in Hampton, Va., from 1921 until he retired in '55. Smith was a member of Michigan State's inaugural Athletics Hall of Fame induction class in '94.
Years prior to Smith's death in 1968, Underwood, then an associate athletic director at MSU, met Smith briefly during a campus visit.
"He came back to campus one time, I believe in the 50s, and I was able to shake his hand," Underwood said. "He wasn't a small man, nor was he a big man. He had gray hair, but he still looked solid. What I recall is he was very low-keyed and modest about what he accomplished here.
"But, he was among the earliest pioneers of MSU and Big Ten football. I really, truly wish that during that one time I met him, I would have been able to sit down with him with a pad of paper and pen, and just asked him some questions because he was a pioneer we didn't really appreciate at the time."
Belcher, whose other grandfather, coincidentally, was one of the first African-American students at Michigan while pursuing his master's degree, wishes Underwood had been able to write down Smith's oral history, as well.
"So much of the world knows about Jackie Robinson and Jesse Owens and those of that ilk, but there are other heroes, whose achievements are unsung, though I hesitate to call my grandfather an unsung hero now, given the honors from MSU. However, any acknowledgments these individuals get still pale in comparison to the sacrifices they made and what their lives represent."
"It comes back to the question of how someone can have a life like that and emerge with the qualities that they had. It's truly powerful."
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