Friday, January 15, 2016

This History is Yours

This Monday at the Museum we will be hosting a program called “This History is Yours.” School kids, and probably many adults, have the day off for Martin Luther King Jr. Day and are encouraged to come out to the museum and learn about the rich cultural heritage of the African American community in Champaign County. We’ll be learning about the biggest time periods of movement right after the Civil War and during the years after World War I known as the Great Migration.

The amount of courage it took for people and families to move to a new place and the reasons why it was necessary to do so, will be a big part of what we discuss. The Museum of the Grand Prairie is home to the Doris Hoskins archive, a collection of materials including newspapers and other articles about life in Champaign County for African Americans. Doris Hoskins gave the collection to the Museum for safe keeping and programs like this give us the opportunity to share with the community these stories.
The Smith Family
One of my favorite stories that I've uncovered is the about the Smith Family. This amazing family's story begins before the Civil War with the family patriarch, George W. Smith, who was born a slave in Tennessee in 1836. As George Smith was growing up he was expected to accompany the slave owners children to school and act as their playmate. During his time attending school, Smith actually learned how to read and write- an offense punishable by law. Eventually, he was found out and had to escape Tennessee in order to save his life.

William Walter Smith
Luckily for Mr. Smith, this was right around the time of the Civil War and he was able to serve in the Union Army before settling in Springfield, Illinois post war. In Springfield, he met his bride Mary Oglesby Gaines, with whom he had five sons and two daughters. Their family moved to Broadlands, here in Champaign County, in 1876 and started a farm. He was among the first in this area to use drainage tile farming and was remarkably successful. At the time of his death in 1911, he was believed to be the wealthiest African American in Illinois outside of Chicago. 

As someone who valued education and never forgot how hard won his own education was, he spent a lot of time and effort on educating his children. His son, William Walter Smith, was the first African American to graduate from the University of Illinois in 1900, receiving his bachelors degree in civil engineering. 

This family's remarkable story, and more, will be showcased on Monday as we continue the conversation about Champaign County's African American heritage and stories.  

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