PHOTO: Gideon Smith with the Ferris State football team in 1912.
This story is reposted from Jan. 12, 2015.
By TOM SHANAHAN
A 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” — the words of his grandson, John Belcher — posthumously was honored with the Trailblazer Award from the American Football Coaches Association. The group’s recognized him at its annual convention on Jan. 12, 2015 in Louisville.
Smith was enshrined in Michigan State’s Hall of Fame in 1992 and was named to the Ferris State Hall of Fame in 2020, but the October 2020 awards event had to be delayed due to the pandemic. He is recognized at the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton as one of the first four African-American pro players. He is on the College Football Hall of Fame ballot for his coaching career and also is deserving of the Black College Football Hall of Fame.
The AFCA Trailblazing Award honors coaches at Historically Black Colleges and Universities, but in a sense Smith is a genuine Great Lakes State “Michigan Man.” He escaped segregation for opportunities he received at Ferris in Big Rapids and Michigan State in East Lansing. He used his education to return home to segregated Virginia with a degree. He mentored a generation of young African-Americans at Hampton.
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.
At the time, Jim Crow segregation still ruled Maryland public schools despite the 1954 Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v. Board of Education ruling, but McDonogh had voluntarily integrated, establish a path for Belchers others eventually followed.
“This latest recognition of my grandfather’s achievements has layered significance for me,” said Belcher of the AFCA Award. “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 State, thanks to Woodbridge Ferris, who founded Ferris Institute. Big Rapids was then-thriving lumber town for a school that evolved into Ferris State University.
Woodbridge Ferris, later a Michigan governor and U.S. Senator, had established a working relationship with Hampton Institute. A dozen Black students were educated at Ferris and 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 1910-12 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 Ferris is proud of launching his path.
Smith led upstart MAC to its first two wins over a Michigan, a program down the road in Ann Arbor that was already a national power. MAC beat UM in the 1913 and 1915 seasons.
Smith played professionally with the immortal Jim Thorpe on the Canton Bulldogs.
After Smith’s playing days he returned home to then-Hampton Institute, a HBCU. He was a successful Hampton coach from 1921 to 1940, including a Black Football national title in 1922. He was the school’s longest tenured coach and is No. 2 the all-time wins list at 97-46-12. He was a Hampton assistant athletic director until retiring in 1955. He died at age 78 in 1968.
Smith’s grandson said it best about pioneers such Gideon Smith. They aren’t as nationally well known as Jackie Robinson and other pioneers for breaking barriers, but he endured the same humiliations for the color of their skin.
Belcher says of his grandfather in “Raye of Light”, which devotes a chapter to Smith’s biography and his 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.”
Thanks to the AFCA and the Trailblazer Award, more people now know his story and otherwise silent place in history
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