A quiz on the life of an African-American pioneer of Champaign County

A quiz on the life of an African-American pioneer of Champaign County

A little more than 100 years ago — on Dec. 29, 1911 — one of the African-American pioneers of Champaign County died at the age of 75. At the time of his death, George W. Smith left an estate valued at more than $116,000 which, according to the Champaign Daily Gazette, was believed to be "the most valuable one ever left by a colored man in this state."

Here are some true or false questions about the spectacular life of George W. Smith.

1. Smith was born in 1836 in McNairy County, Tenn. As such, he was born a slave. True or false?

2. At that time it was against the law in Tennessee to teach a slave to read and write. True or false?

3. In 1862, as he was operating a mill in Tennessee, Smith was advised that a group of Confederate soldiers was coming after him to draft him into the army. True or false?

4. After the war, Smith moved north and settled near Springfield, the hometown of the late President Abraham Lincoln. True or false?

5. Smith came to Champaign County in 1876 when he agreed to purchase 80 acres a mile south of the village of Broadlands. True or false?

6. Smith grew clover and corn and raised hogs and eventually amassed more than 160 acres. True or false?

7. By 1887, a county history noted that Smith was a member of the Democratic Party and was a candidate for public office. True or false?

8. Smith was known as a very athletic man. True or false?

9. Because of racism at the time, Smith's funeral was attended only by family and a few friends.

10. None of Smith's seven children was as successful as he had been. True or false?

1. True. He was born a slave and at age 9, he along with six brothers and sisters were taken from their mother and sold for $501.50.

2. True. Young George Smith's job as a young child was to accompany his purchaser's children to school and act as their playmate. During study hours, the slave boys were allowed to sit on a bench in the rear of the room. According to legend, the teacher once remarked to a white child that "even George knew the answer" to a question. When she asked him the question, young George did know the answer. Word got out of his proficiency, and soon the slave owners, hearing of his intelligence, gave orders to keep him out of school. But a sympathetic teacher gave him a book with orders to hide it in his shirt if he saw anyone coming.

3. False. Rebel soldiers supposedly were coming to kill Smith because he knew too much. According to legend, Smith escaped with a squirrel rifle, met the Union Army at Shiloh and became a scout under Gen. George McClellan.

4. True. It was there that he married Mary E. Oglesby Gaines, who had one son, A.A. Gaines, from a previous marriage. They farmed rented land near Buffalo, Ill., just east of Springfield. Family lore said Smith farmed in the summer and chopped wood all winter. There never was a day, it was said, that was too cold for him to work.

5. True. The Broadlands area was swampy land in those days, it was said, and those times were the most trying of Smith's life. But he was said to have been one of the first farmers in the area to adopt tile drainage.

6. True. Not only did he grow corn and clover and raise hogs, but he eventually owned 437 acres (an area called "The Trail") and at the time of his death was worth an estimated $110,000.

7. False. The county history said Smith was a Republican who was held in high regard by his neighbors. And although he believed every man should take an active part in politics, he would never accept public office. His business, he said, was farming. But he served as a juror as well as an arbitrator in disputed matters.

8. True. He was more than 6 feet tall and allegedly had the strength of two men. When he was living near Buffalo, Ill., he would often walk 4 miles to the woods during the winter, chop wood until noon, eat his frozen lunch and chop a hole in the ice for a drink.

9. False. Smith's funeral at the Broadlands Methodist Church was crowded to capacity. There were 13 pallbearers, all of them friends and neighbors.

10. False. Charles A. Smith was a farmer and stock buyer of cattle and horses. Fred Smith became a lawyer. Anna Smith married James Neal and they farmed. William W. Smith earned a degree in civil engineering at the University of Illinois and spent years in South America, New York and Philadelphia before his death. John Smith farmed in Ayers Township. Saloma Sexton spent most of her time in St. Louis and Gary, Ind. A.A. Gaines, Mrs. Smith's son, farmed near Broadlands.


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Hartree wrote on February 26, 2012 at 2:02 pm

Question 6 is true.

The answer says he grew clover, corn, raised hogs and amassed 437 acres, which is indeed more than 160. 

Tom Kacich wrote on February 27, 2012 at 12:02 pm
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Yes, you are correct. I used poor wording in originally writing question No. 6. My intent was to stress that Smith amassed far more than a mere 160 acres.

And yes, 437 acres is a lot more than 160. Sorry for the confusion.