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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 373

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This is the grave of Martha Smith.

I don’t know anything about Smith. She’s not a particularly globally important figure. But I thought this was a worthy way to have a brief discussion of the people building black communities in a very grim era of American history.

After the Civil War, the free black community put a huge amount of their very limited resources into building community institutions. The church was the most important, as yesterday’s post on Henry McNeal Turner helps to elucidate. The school was the second most important. While most of the early schooling efforts were about teaching ex-slaves and their children to read, over time, an emphasis to build institutions of higher education developed. In a segregated South (and for that matter, a North where rather few institutions allowed black students to register too), the black college became a center of the small but growing middle class. These colleges could operate in very different ways–what Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Institute taught was very different than at Howard or Fisk, and as Ibram Kendi points out in his brilliant 2016 book Stamped from the Beginning, it was lighter skinned people who ended up at the more liberal arts colleges and darker skinned people who landed at Tuskegee and other similar schools–but they all served as bastions of black independence in a horrible time of American history.

The only thing I know about Martha Smith is what is on her gravestone. She was born in 1901 but started teaching at Virginia Union in 1920. She must have been extremely intelligent to begin teaching at the age of 19. She continued doing that until her very early death in 1934. In 1932, she became dean of women at the school. Virginia Union was a merger of two previous schools in 1899, both of which were founded by Baptist missionaries after the Civil War. In 1932, it merged with a women’s school named Hartshorn Memorial College, which I assume explains the timing of Smith becoming dean. I don’t really know if VU was gender integrated before 1932, but presumably it was if Smith was teaching. I don’t know why she died. Finding more about her would take real archival research and that’s obviously beyond the purview of this series. Nonetheless, such a grave can still teach us something about the past and help us to remember a too-often neglected part of our past.

Martha Smith is buried in Woodland Cemetery, Richmond, Virginia.

This grave visit was sponsored by LGM reader donations. I am greatly appreciative. If you would like this series to discuss more people involved in black higher education, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Benjamin Mays, longtime Morehouse College president, is in Atlanta and Charles Spurgeon Johnson, the first black president of Fisk, is in Nashville. Both attended college at Virginia Union. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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