George W. Smith and Family

Smith, George W. and Family

George W. Smith was born into slavery on December 3, 1836, near Selmer, a city of McNairy County in Tennessee. At the early age of nine years, together with his six brothers and sisters, he was sold from his mother's side. As chattel, he brought the sum of $501.50. It was his duty then to accompany his purchaser's children to school and to act as their playmates.

During study hours, he, with the other slave boys, was allowed to sit on a bench in the rear of the classroom. He sat and absorbed all that he could, because even at that age, he saw that an education was something worth having. Since it was a penal offense to teach a slave to read and write, when the slave-owners discovered he was learning, he was no longer allowed to go to school with the children. However, the school teacher, who had been allowing him to listen, learn, and answer questions, was still interested in George, so he snuck books to him and George was able to continue reading and writing in secret.

Mr. Smith was next set to work as assistant to the miller and finally became the miller. Milling was his trade until 1862. In 18162, he escaped from Tennessee and joined the Union army because he was told a group of white men were going to lynch him. During the Civil War, Mr. Smith served as a scout in the Union army under General McClelland and as a guide for General Logan in Tennessee and Mississippi. Losing his health, he came to Springfield, Illinois, where he met and married Mrs. Mary E. Oglesby Gaines. Together, they had five sons and two daughters.

Mr. Smith chose farming as his lifework. At first it was on a small scale as he farmed in the summer and chopped wood in the winter. In the spring of 1876, Mr. Smith moved to a tract of land in Broadlands. Paying for the first 80 acres was the most difficult task of his career, but he continued to purchase land until he had acquired 440 acres. He was among the very first to adopt tile drainage and was remarkably successful in growing corn, raising hogs, and having excellent quality horses. It was unusual for African Americans to be involved in farming because the few who lived in Champaign County at the time were primarily employed as household help. George was the only African American farmer in Champaign County for a number of years, and he was one of the first in the state.

Mr. Smith never forgot the meager educational opportunities afforded him and spent more money on educating his children than any other man in the township and he considered it well invested. Temperate in all things, he was a man of conservative judgment and served often as juror as well as arbitrator in disputed matters. He had great respect for the rights of other men. It was his opinion that every man should take an active part in politics. He always voted but he would never accept office.

Mr. Smith died on December 29, 1911. His funeral was one of the largest in the history of Broadlands. In 1983, the Smith family received a Centennial Farm Award because the land that George had purchased in 1876 had been owned by the same family for over 100 years. Today, 160 acres of the farmland is still owned by the family, but a friend does the farming.