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 Great Lakes State brand for the 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.
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.
Belcher 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 State, thanks to the goodwill of Woodbridge Ferris. He founded Ferris Institute in the then-thriving lumber town of Big Rapids, Mi., and the school evolved 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 Woodbridge Ferris launched his path.
While Smith established 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 and University. 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, the ones that 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.
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.”