PHOTO (Ferris State): John Belcher and Ferris State athletic director Steve Brockelbank.
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Below is the speech John Belcher, grandson of Gideon Smith, delivered on behalf of his late grandfather at the Ferris State Hall of Fame enshrinement on August 30, 2023, in Big Rapids, Michigan.
Gideon Smith journeyed from segregated Viriginia to Ferris in 1910 and was the school’s first Black football player. He was among the Black students Ferris founder Woodbridge Ferris invited to the school in agreement with what is now called Hampton University. The students then transferred to other schools. Smith transferred to Michigan State and was the Spartans’ first Black football player, 1913-15.
Smith also has been recognized by the Pro Football Hall of Fame as one of the fledgling NFL’s early Black players. He returned to Virginia as a successful coach and administrator at Hampton University. He led the Pirates to the 1922 Black national title. In 2015, the American Football Coaches Association honored him with its Trailblazers Award.
Ferris is the third school to enshrine Smith following Michigan State and Hampton. He is on the ballot for the College Football Hall of Fame in Atlanta for small-school coaches.
First off, thank you to The Bulldog Athletics Hall of Fame Selection Committee for this honor and to Steve Brockelbank, Athletics Director and Perk Weisenburger, Athletics Director Emeritus for personally reaching out to me to involve me in this momentous event.
Thank you to Dr. David Pilgrim and Franklin Hughes from the Diversity and Inclusion Office who contacted me back in 2017 and over a period of months provided me with information and stories about my Grandfather’s deep, powerful Ferris State history and connections, as well as other historical information and artifacts about which I had been unaware up until that time.
Thank you to Tom Shanahan, author of Raye of Light, which includes a chapter on my Grandfather, and author of a number of moving tributes to my Grandfather that have appeared in various Michigan publications over the years.
As I stand here, I reflect upon the first time I accepted an award on my Grandfather’s behalf, as a 13-year old. I recall expecting and intending to walk on the stage, receive the award, say a simple “Thank you” and walk off.
I recall my Dad insisting that on an occasion of that sort, I needed to express more than a simple “Thank you.” I needed to communicate a message about my Grandfather. I think and feel of this Ferris HOF occasion and a strong feeling/inclination/urge that I need to say more than “Thank you.”
PHOTO (Ferris State) Gideon Smith’s grandson John Belcher at the Ferris State Hall of Fame enshrinement.
Further, I feel that I need to say more than what a wonderful person My Grandfather was. I feel a responsibility to speak on his behalf and say something that the times would not have allowed him to say.
My Grandfather Gideon E. Smith was and remains the gentlest person I have known my entire life. As I learned more of the indignities he faced and overcame with grace and dignity, I wondered how he could emerge from those experiences with his humanity intact, much less be the type of gentle person I knew him to be.
As I contemplated and imagined his experiences, experiences I heard about of his time after leaving Ferris, such as not being able to eat where his Michigan State teammates ate and not being to stay where they stayed and having to face with restraint the names that he was called on the field by opposing teams, I felt visceral reactions, including tears and rage.
Again, I wondered and marveled that my Grandfather could emerge from those experiences and be so gentle. I wondered about processing all of the family stories I grew up with, stories of facing indignities due to race that persisted across generations.
PHOTO (Ferris State): Gideon Smith with his Ferris State teammates in 1912.
I wondered about processing my own experiences of dealing with the indignities I experienced as a “race pioneer” in various circumstances and settings. I reflected upon the ebb and flow efforts to tell a more complete American story and how the voices get muted with characterizations and/or charges of “political correctness,” or rewriting history or wokeness or CRT, of how these efforts predictably trigger mobilizations to take “our” country back and make it “great” again.
And I felt and feel visceral reactions, including rage. And I worried about emerging with my humanity, my capacity for gentleness, for belief in my fellow Americans, for belief in the moral arc of the universe, intact.
I’ve been imagining moments such as this particular right here, right now for years and have gone through multiple iterations of what to say and of what to not say. In the past year, I had an epiphany. I realized that the rage that I felt and feel is an important aspect of my humanity.
I think and feel of the ways in which my Grandfather’s ability to express the full range of his humanity was probably compromised, including the muted ability to express the human emotion of rage which I am sure he felt.
Thank you for indulging me in not only accepting this Hall of Fame honor on my Grandfather’s behalf but helping to reclaim and, hopefully, celebrate a fuller picture of his humanity.
PHOTO (Michigan State): Gideon Smith, who was instrumental in Michigan State’s first two wins over Michigan in 1913 and 1915, was honored at halftime of a 1953 game along with his teammates on the 40th anniversary of the 1913 victory.
Tom Shanahan is an author, award-winning writer and historian focused on college football integration. He is the author of “Raye of Light” and an upcoming second book, “The Right Thing to Do.” His story on the 1962 Rose Bowl and segregation was awarded first place by the Football Writers Association of America. Visit his website, TomShanahan.Report.
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Click here for my story on the 1962 Rose Bowl and Segregation awarded first place by the Football Writers Association of America. I tell untold stories on Michigan State’s leading role and the true pioneers of college football integration. Click here to read a summary.
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RAYE OF LIGHT
Jimmy Raye, Duffy Daugherty, the 1ntegration of College Football and the 1965-66 Michigan State Spartans
Foreword by Tony Dungy