Home / General / Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,319

Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,319


This is the grave of Hoke Smith.

Born in 1855 in Newton, North Carolina Michael Hoke Smith grew up pretty wealthy. His father was the president of Catawba College and then became a professor at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. Of course the family was pro-Confederate and Smith had plenty of relatives who fought in it, most notable General Robert Hoke, who unfortunately led troops effectively at Cold Harbor. Well, treason in defense of slavery is not something this family ever felt bad about and they’d pass those values along to young Hoke.

The family eventually ended up in Atlanta and that’s where Smith spent his final childhood years. Smith read for the law and passed the bar there in 1873. For about a decade, he was just a minor league lawyer. He had his office, but it wasn’t too much. But in the early 1880s, he moved into personal injury suits, where he was effective. He began to get wealthy. Most of the work he had here was representing railroad workers who had been hurt on the job (or their families if they had been killed). It’s hard to overestimate how much people despised the railroads for their utter indifference to human life. While the courts had mostly given cover to the railroads on personal injury issues going back to the 1840s, this was a constantly contested process and so railroad workers frequently sued their employers. All of this made Smith highly skeptical of the power of railroads in society.

As Smith became wealthy, he became a leading citizen of Atlanta. He was especially interested in education reform and would commit much of his resources to promoting and administering Atlanta schools. He also decided to use that to buy a newspaper. The Atlanta Journal became his personal vehicle to promote the Democratic Party. He was so effective in promoting Grover Cleveland’s candidacy in 1892 that when Cleveland won his second, non-consecutive, term, he offered Smith the position of Secretary of the Interior. This was the most ridiculous kind of patronage. Smith had no knowledge of the issues that Interior even dealt with. What did an Atlanta lawyer know about the public lands? None of that mattered though. It’s not as if the Gilded Age cared about competence.

Smith and Cleveland remained real close. They both had hard money policies and both were outraged by William Jennings Bryan’s takeover of the party in 1896. It nearly caused Smith to support McKinley, but he couldn’t go that far. So he just went back to Atlanta, rebuilt his practice, went into real estate, and became a local rich guy with a lot of political ambition.

Smith wanted power. Up to 1900 or so, he hadn’t really been that much of a racebaiter. But if racebaiting is what it took to promote himself, he was going to racebait. He became close to Tom Watson, the white supremacist Populist leader from Georgia. They basically made a deal that Watson would throw his influence behind Smith’s run for governor in 1906 if Smith would then implement the entirety of Watson’s white supremacist agenda. Smith readily agreed.

The 1907 Georgia governor campaign was pretty gross. Smith was racebaiting left and right, talking about Negro domniation over white girls, the need for violence to defend white supremacy, etc. He stated that allowing Black men to vote was just asking them to rape our white girls. It was really bad. In fact, his speeches contributed materially to the atmosphere that led to the 1906 Atlanta Race Riot. That took place in September 1906 and was about supposed rapes of white women by Black men, the exact stuff that Watson promoted. Minimum, whites murdered 25 Black people in that riot, but the real number could be closer to 100.

Naturally, Smith won that race. And he lived up to his promises to Watson. Remember that the establishment of Jim Crow did not happen overnight. Plessy v. Ferguson was just a moment in that process. Some states had pretty well segregated before 1896 and others did not that much until after that decision. Georgia was among the latter. So it was Smith that signed the bills that disfranchised Black voters, creating the literacy test and poll tax and then the grandfather clause to protect poor whites from disfranchisement.

Smith tied all this up with a soft version of populism. Specifically, he promoted some minor railroad regulation, he spent money on education, and he ended the awful convict labor lease system that had provided free prison labor to build the railroads and mine coal in the South going back to the late 1860s. This wasn’t enough for Watson, who threw his weight in 1909 behind Joseph Mackey Brown and Smith was tossed out. The other reason Watson turned on Smith is that Watson wanted the death sentence for one of his supporters convicted of murdered thrown out and Smith refused to do so. Smith came back in 1911 though. And then he went to the U.S. Senate after Joseph Terrell had a major stroke. He himself had only just started in Washington, named in late 1910 after Alexander Clay died. The Georgia legislature sent Smith to replace him. He actually held off on going to Washington though. He had an agenda to complete, which included late legislation to reduce the maximum workweek in the textile mills to 60 hours and creating an education department for the state.

Smith won reelection in 1914 and then lost to Watson, now a political enemy, in 1920. In the Senate, Smith’s primary issues were agricultural and educational. It is his name on the 1914 Smith-Lever Act, which created the national agricultural extension system. It is also his name on the 1917 Smith-Hughes Act, leading to greater vocational education in secondary schools.

After he left the Senate, Smith returned to Georgia and lived the life of a rich guy, practicing law in both Washington and Atlanta. He died in 1931, at the age of 76.

In the end, Smith is the most successful Progressive southern governor. But like many Progressives around the nation, he built that career on the backs of people of color, racebaiting his way to the top. There was little criticism of this at the time; it’s not as if Theodore Roosevelt, let’s say, wasn’t just as stone cold racist as Smith. This is why it bugs me a bit that people hate on Woodrow Wilson but not TR or Taft. This stuff was basically universal among Progressive political elites at the time. Heck, Margaret Sanger was out there promoting eugenics too.

Hoke Smith is buried in Oakland Cemetery, Atlanta, Georgia.

If you would like this series to visit other Progressives of a less awful ilk, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Robert La Follette is in Madison, Wisconsin and Jane Addams is in Cedarville, Illinois. Previous posts in this series are archived here and here.

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