Photo: (above): Gideon Smith with his Michigan State teammates in 1913 and (below) with his Ferris State teammates in 1912.
A full century later, Gideon Smith finally received just recognition from a national organization.
Smith broke barriers throughout his life. He was the first black college football player at two Michigan schools, Ferris State and Michigan State. Later he blazed trails in coaching at what is now known as Hampton University in his then-segregated hometown of Hampton, Va.
The gentle and humble man posthumously was honored with the Trailblazer Award from the American Football Coaches Association at the group’s annual convention on Jan. 12 in Louisville. The award honors coaches at historically black colleges and universities, but in a sense Smith is a genuine “Michigan Man” of another brand for the opportunities he received from two Great Lakes State colleges. He used his education to return home to then-segregated Virginia with a degree to launch a successful career mentoring a generation of young African-Americans.
Smith’s only grandson John Belcher is an educator at a non-profit school, TERC in Cambridge, Ma., that provides minorities with math and science opportunities. In 1959, Belcher was a first-grader when he was the first African-American student admitted to McDonogh School, a K-12 private school in Owings Mill, Md.
Jim Crow segregation still ruled Maryland public schools after the Supreme Court's landmark Brown v. Board of Education ruling, but McDonogh voluntarily integrated. It was five years after the Supreme Court ruling, but it still set a path for others to eventually follow. It's never easy being the first.
Belcher, now as a teacher and then as a student, has continued his grandfather’s pioneering legacy.
“This latest recognition of my grandfather’s achievements has layered significance for me,” said Belcher. “The Trailblazer Award signifies that my grandfather lived a life of trailblazing, extending beyond his pioneering days as a football player and student at Michigan State. I continue to draw strength from his life of dignity, mission, purpose and humility and am reminded of my own responsibility, as a bearer of his legacy, to make a difference.”
Smith endured segregation in the South as a youth born in 1890 when southerners who fought in the Civil War still walked the streets. But he was granted a chance to journey north to Ferris, thanks to the goodwill of Woodbridge Ferris, founder of Ferris Institute in the then-thriving lumber town of Big Rapids, Mi., that grew into Ferris State University.
Woodbridge Ferris, later a Michigan governor and U.S. Senator from Michigan, established a working relationship with Hampton Institute to bring about a dozen black students to be educated at Ferris before they transferred on to other schools. He had been inspired by reading Hampton alum Booker T. Washington’s autobiography, “Up from Slavery.”
Smith was the first black football player at Ferris in 1912 and again the pioneering first black athlete when he transferred to Michigan State, then known as Michigan Agricultural College; he played football at MAC from 1913 to 1915. He is best known for his time at Michigan State, but without Woodbridge Ferris we never heard about Gideon Smith and his influence on future generations.
While establishing his name at upstart MAC, he led the school to its first two wins over a Michigan program that was already a national power in the 1913 and 1915 seasons. Smith was inducted into Michigan State’s inaugural Hall of Fame class in 1992.
Smith played professionally in 1915 with the immortal Jim Thorpe on the Canton Bulldogs. The Pro Football Hall of Fame lists him as the fourth black pro player.
After Smith’s playing days he returned home to then-Hampton Institute, a Historically Black College. He was a successful Hampton coach from 1921 to 1940, including a Black Football national title in 1922. He is still the school’s all-time winningest coach with a record of 97-46-12. He was a Hampton assistant athletic director until retiring in 1955. He died at age 78 in 1968.
Smith’s grandson, who unfortunately wasn’t invited to accept the award for his grandfather in an oversight by the AFCA, said it best about pioneers such Gideon Smith who aren’t nationally known for breaking barriers but endured the same humiliations for the color of their skin. Names such as Jesse Owens and Jackie Robinson are most prominent.
Another icon is Ernie Banks, with Americans rightfully remembering the baseball Hall-of-Famer with Chicago Cubs that passed away Friday at the age of 83. Those who knew Banks admired him for his good nature and cite that he wasn’t embittered by the prejudices he endured. Banks played in the Negro Leagues before Robinson cleared the way for black players to advance to the Major Leagues.
Belcher says of his grandfather in “Raye of Light”, which devotes a chapter to Smith’s biography and time at Michigan State as part of the Spartans’ leading role in the integration of college football:
“What comes to mind is his gentle nature. I’ve spent a lot of time trying to reconcile the experiences and the indignities that I endured with racism compared to what he must have faced. I don’t know how he came through that as a gentle person. The world doesn’t know him like a Jackie Robinson or Jesse Owens, but I put him on that plane with what he confronted and the trails that he blazed. And there are others like him. They are silent heroes. They are a part of history.”