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Black Appalachian Oral History Project Interview with Ellison A. Smyth, Interview 1

Date of Interview: 5 March 1991; Blacksburg, VA
Interviewer: Michael A. Cooke, Assistant Professor of History, Virginia Tech
Transcriber: Cindy Hurd

Note: This interview was done in 1991 as part of the Black Appalachian Oral History Project (Ms91-019) by Dr. Michael Cooke of Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. In this project Dr. Cooke conducted 22 oral history interviews (on 25 tapes) of and about blacks in Appalachia, predominantly in Montogomery County, Virginia.


{ Tape 1, Side 1 - Tape 1, Side 2 }


Begin Tape 1, Side 1

Cooke: Today is March 5th, 1991. I'm conducting an interview with Ellison A. Smyth of Blacksburg, Virginia. Mr. Smyth, can you give us a brief biographical sketch of your life. Your birthdate, birthplace...

Smyth: I was born on the VPI campus in October 1903, the son of Dr. Ellison Adger Smyth, Jr. of Charleston, South Carolina who came here with Dr. McBryde to found the Biology Department in 1891. My first 21 years were spent on the VPI campus. I was graduated from VPI in Electrical Engineering in 1925 and worked for the General Electric Company in Schenectady and then Erie, Pennsylvania and in Philadelphia before seeing the light and not being able to escape the hound of heaven who pursued me into the ministry of the Presbyterian Church. I studied at Richmond for three years.

Cooke: At what school?

Smyth: The Union Theological Seminary and then took graduate work at the University of Edinburgh in Theology, the Mecca of Presbyterian scholars. Then returned to this country in the middle of the Depression the pastor of a newly organized Presbyterian church in Nitro, West Virginia. From close to 60 members who bragged that they were spitbacks from the Southern Baptist Church and the Southern Methodist Church. Neither church in which they felt at home. I did a lot of work there with young people and in the community for three years. When they couldn't stand me any longer and I couldn't stand them any longer, Dr. Murray of Lexington, Virginia, of a Presbyterian church, called me to head up the student's work at VMI and Washington and Lee for the Presbyterian Church. You think that's enough?

Cooke: That's quite a lot. How did you end up eventually in the Blacksburg area? When did you first come here?

Smyth: Well, I served in Lexington for four years, got a master's degree in history. The history of Presbyterianism in Rockbridge County. And then served in Warrenton, Virginia for two years in the horse racing country where I did not feel at home. And the church in Hartsville, South Carolina where we had friends called me as pastor in 1941 at the time of the outbreak of the war. We stayed there for seven years, and then I was called back to Blacksburg as pastor of the church. Enough time had elapsed since my youth there for a lot of people to forget a lot of things. We had a very happy pastorate there for all together 21 years which was the longest pastorate that they've ever stood a minister in a Presbyterian church. We owned a home there in a very attractive neighborhood, in the woods. We raised four children. The oldest is a pastor of a Presbyterian church between Davidson, North Carolina and Charlotte. The youngest has a camera store in the middle of Charlotte. The oldest girl married a Presbyterian minister, a scholar of Arabic and Hebrew who teaches in the theological school in Vancouver, Canada for the last 16 years or so. The youngest girl married J. Michael Brown, a doctor, who is dean of the business school at West Kentucky University. That's the end of that.

Cooke: OK. Would you talk about your upbringing as a child in the Blacksburg area? In terms of how would you describe race relations? Did you have any significant contact with Blacks growing up in this area?

Smyth: Mama, my mother, being from Charleston, did not feel that the house was really established unless there was a black in the kitchen. Domestics, that was the place for a black woman to me. A black man, farm work, painting, carpentry, any make-shift job that you could get. There were not many blacks in Blacksburg. Out on Nelley's Cave Road [now Grissom Lane], the Mills family and hangers-on and kinfolk to them, very fine black family. In town there were a few blacks living up Bitter Hill, the oldest section in town.

Cooke: Which is now, what's the name of the street?

Smyth: Off Lee Street. On the campus, us kids, they called us the Faculty Fumblers when we played football.

Cooke: The Faculty Fumblers?

Smyth: The Faculty Fumblers, we always fumbled the ball. But I played opposite Booker T. Washington who chewed real tobacco. We were allowed to chew licorice and spit what looked tobacco, but we couldn't chew real tobacco. But Booker T. Washington chewed REAL tobacco, and he played opposite me, right tackle. He lubricated the grass in front of me with real tobacco juice, and I didn't like to roll in that. Anybody who passed by was free to join in the football games. We played Potlikker Flats [north Blacksburg], we played Bitter Hill, and they always beat us, but it was a lot of fun. Sometimes even college students passing by from the Aggie Hall would stop, "Can we play too?" And they would choose up sides.

Cooke: Was this flag football, or tag football, or was this tackle football?

Smyth: No, we played rough football.

Cooke: Oh it was rough football?

Smyth: Yeah, yeah. But about the only contact we had, and pretty much it was viewed that blacks were domestics. We had one very fine family, the Rollins family. Mr. Rollins worked on the Smithfield Farm and his wife Amanda Rollins had two children, Chris and I forget the name of the other one. Mother was very fond of her and helped to send her to the school in Petersburg for additional education.

Cooke: Why was that necessary? Was there a black high school?

Smyth: No, they had a grade school and what had been the early Presbyterian church built --a shed with the Masonic Order. The Union Hill Church it was called, which was on the edge of what is now the Middle School now in Blacksburg and that was turned into a black school, graded school. When they built the Middle School that was demolished, and by that time blacks could...I don't remember whether they were integrated into the public school then, or later but anyhow that's where the black school was located. Church and school. I had very wonderful relations as pastor with Archie Richmond who was pastor of the AME church.

Cooke: St. Paul AME? That's the one on Penn Street.

Smyth: Yeah, that's right on Penn Street. We had very close relations and as we worked for the desegregation movement we were just like twins almost and _________.

Cooke: Is he still living?

Smyth: He went to Philadelphia I believe, and I used to get a Christmas letter from him. But I haven't heard from Archie for a long time, but he was a very fine person. His wife was a college graduate, a university graduate. The University Women's Organization used to be on campus. When she joined, and she had a right to join, the president of the college, Dr. Newman said, "You can't meet on the campus anymore. No integration is allowed." Of course he was a victim, had come up in an educational system where Richmond called all signals. And if you weren't in cahoots with the Richmond gang, you didn't get the appropriations for...

Cooke: So this is President Newman who made that decision?

Smyth: That was President Newman, yes.

Cooke: So the idea of having a black in a women's organization affiliated with the university...

Smyth: It could not be done. And so they came to the Presbyterian church.

Cooke: So they came to your church?

Smyth: Yeah. And I took that up with the session, and it was right revealing of human nature. Dr. Newman was an elder in our church, and I had good relations with him. He was friendly and appreciative and all. But he and his wife could not break the line and would not break the line. Finally he dropped out of the church because I was preaching straight.

Cooke: Preaching straight at him?

Smyth: Well, that's what he felt. In fact one of the elders said, "Quit laying it on, Walter." The wonderful thing about it is after people saw the light, so many of those who had bitterly opposed Mary Linda and myself in leadership with Maryanne Matus who was Jewish, and a stalwart leader in breaking down integration.

Cooke: Breaking down segregation.

Smyth: Breaking down segregation, yeah. That was a mistake.

Cooke: Yes.

Smyth: Mrs. Newman would cross the street to keep from speaking to Mary Linda. Mary Linda had suggested that at the musical events held in Burruss Hall that blacks ought to be admitted on the same basis as anybody else. They were horrified at the idea, the college administration, can't be done. And Mrs. Newman would cross the street to keep from speaking to Mary Linda. And Doc Newman dropped out of our church.

Cooke: Did others drop out? Was he the only one?

Smyth: No, several of them.

Cooke: Did they articulate why they dropped out?

Smyth: They didn't need to. They put the heat on us.

Cooke: In what ways did they try to put the heat on you?

Smyth: Cut the salary.

Cooke: Cut the salary?

Smyth: Yeah. And it didn't work. More people came into the church when he dropped out because they were thankful that there was church that adhered to the line and gave the truth. We received more members, almost without effort, than we lost. And the wonderful thing about it is that after people saw the light a few years later those wounds healed and Dr. Newman, president of the bank, well we had to count the bank too, cause we were on very friendly terms again. Same thing with some of the others who had really cussed me up and down the street. We just went back on friendly terms. The wounds were healed.

Cooke: This was during the period of the 1950s I guess.

Smyth: That was during the 1960s.

Cooke: Oh, during the 1960s.

Smyth: Healed.

Cooke: The falling out period during the 1950s I guess.

Smyth: In the 1950s yeah.

Cooke: Roughly around the Brown vs. Board of Education decision?

Smyth: Yeah. It took a little while for it to get the repercussions in Blacksburg. We were back in the hills, hillbillies.

Cooke: But it did come?

Smyth: It did come finally. The light began to dawn.

Cooke: You mentioned there was a Jewish lady who was very active. What was her name again?

Smyth: Maryanne Matus. Her husband is still living, George Matus. The first time I heard her was in a PTA meeting. They had the president of the PTA from Roanoke as the speaker. This was after the Supreme Court decision. She was saying that the PTA should not say or do anything in contradiction of the standard of the state, massive resistance that Harry Byrd tried to force down our throats. At this meeting of the PTA where she spoke, I got up at the end when they had questions and so on. I said, "We just had a good report on a new school that had been established in Montgomery County, and what's the point in establishing new schools if they're going to be closed!" on account of Harry Byrd's stand. My wife got up after that and said, "We should not bury our heads in the sand. We better set up the committee to study what can be done to preserve education." And after the meeting broke up, people were very caustic in their criticism of both of us. That was really the spark that set in motion our desire to establish a Council on Human relations in Blacksburg. I had a lot of material hell at the start of that.

Cooke: Could you talk about some of the people who were active in this committee? Who did you try to solicit to be part of such a committee? When did you actually establish it?

Smyth: You know after you pass 87 years of age, immediate recall is one of the first things you lose.

Cooke: Well, I don't even recall dates and things.

Smyth: Dates used to be one of my favorites.

Cooke: If you can't recall a date, who are some of the people, you probably could remember them, who were part of this committee?

Smyth: The wife of one of the young professors, I can't recall her name, I saw them just the other night at the musical. She was right in on the integration movement right away. My assistant pastor Jerry Boney.

Cooke: Is he still in the area?

Smyth: No, Jerry died of a brain tumor. But he was my assistant pastor, and he started...there was one black student at VPI finally.

Cooke: Was it Charlie Yates?

Smyth: I guess it was, I don't remember right now.

Cooke: It could be Charlie. It might have been another one. There weren't many so the odds are good.

Smyth: Just one walked. They opened the gate for one person to get in. Jerry Bonet was living in front of the old Presbyterian Manse. We had bought a home out on Oak Drive. So Jerry started a group with the black student, myself, this wife of one of the professors, and several white students, and we'd meet on the upstairs back porch of the manse. That was one thing that really helped to kick off the Council of Human Relations. We finally decided that we needed better organization. Maryanne Matus, who was one of the leaders in it, and we met in the old Presbyterian Church [corner of Roanoke St. and Church St.]. We had the black barber, a good friend of mine.

Cooke: John Sears?

Smyth: John Sears. Several of the others, who were old-time friends of mine.

Cooke: Was it the Warrens? I can't think of his first name now.

Smyth: Well, it slips me too. You're too young to have slip _______.

Cooke: I just recently found out about him. Were there mainly barbers and businessmen and people connected with...

Smyth: John Warren and Sears had what had been in my childhood days the only barbershop in town. I was used to having John Warren cut my hair from childhood up. I was a scraggly little boy, and he had to almost tie me...

Cooke: You were a cadet too, weren't you?

Smyth: Not then, I was just a kid.

Cooke: Weren't you a member of the VPI... everybody was a cadet right?

Smyth: Yes, everybody was a cadet.

Cooke: So he cut your hair again probably?

Smyth: Oh yeah. That was the only place in town. The only decent place in town you could get a haircut. And then another barber shop, they call it John's Barber Shop too. It's still in existence. I have to go there now to go to the barber shop. But John Warren and Sears, there were two or three in the barber shop then and everybody got their hair cut there. They were very low key, "Yes sir" and tip their hat and be pleasant. But they were very fine, very fine people. I had a wonderful black nurse when I was a kid. Mother used to bring them from Charleston, South Carolina when she would go home down there, bring one back. And one winter would cure them of Blacksburg, they didn't like the cold climate.

Cooke: You were taking about relations with your committee. You had John Sears and Mr. Warren.

Smyth: And, oh what was her name? She nursed me when I was a kid. I can't think of her name right now but she was a very fine person. And then Amanda Rollins was one of the main-stays.

Cooke: That's one of the black families.

Smyth: One of the black families, she had two little girls. He husband worked at Smithfield, and he'd sing. We could have singing. Then there was a succeeding hymn. Smithfield was a black, we used to call Rabbit.

Cooke: I might even know who Rabbit is. Was it Leonard Price?

Smyth: I don't remember his name.

Cooke: It might not have been Leonard Price.

Smyth: Could have been.

Cooke: I have to go back in my tapes because I remember some of the names that people were getting. I think it's him but I'm not sure. I have to go back and check my tapes.

Smyth: We all knew him as Rabbit. He would yodel down there in Smithfield. We could hear him all over the campus. He had a voice that carried. He's sing and yodel. We always knew when Rabbit was on the job. But John Sears was quiet.

Cooke: Was it Frank Banister?

Smyth: Banister. That rings a bell. It could have been. Frankly I don't remember. I just knew him as Rabbit.

Cooke: Frank Banister worked on campus, the president's house I believe.

Smyth: Yeah. Dan worked up there. Dan Hoag. His family had been slaves to the Hoags of the family.

Cooke: Now I mentioned about Banister, I think Banister was probably descended from slaves of the Kents of Wake Forest. He's not connected with the Mills.

Smyth: That's right. No, that's different. The Wake Forest group, they used to walk into town for jobs. There's some very fine folks out there. We had more contact with the Mills family and the Sears and Amanda Rollins. Amanda Rollins was one of mother's favorites. She was a very fine, very gifted person. When I came back as pastor that was one of the first places I visited, to see Amanda. She said, "I would so love to come and hear you preach, come to your church." And I said, "You can come and sit anywhere you want to." Well, she came and sat up in the balcony in the corner.

Cooke: Why do you think she did that?

Smyth: Well, patterns, the habitual patterns.

Cooke: She didn't want to embarrass you.

Smyth: She didn't want to embarrass anybody. She was a very fine person.

Cooke: If she had sat down there and then it got out that you said that she had the permission to I think you would have been in a little bit of hot water.

Smyth: Oh, I didn't have to say anything. People knew the relationship, and she could have sat anywhere, but she just chose not to embarrass anybody. We had very good relations. But it's a hard pattern to break. My wife was just a champion. She backed me in everything. In fact, she led me very often. Together with Maryanne Matus, we three I guess were the ones that were criticized most severely. But they didn't throw me out.

Cooke: Didn't throw out your ministry?

Smyth: My family had too strong a reputation there for anyone to get sassy. They said it behind your back, and sometimes they said it a little to publicly and openly. But it was embarrassing to my white friends who were member of our church who did not see eye to eye. The head of our Board of Deacons came to me one day when blacks were crashing the white churches, coming to the door and embarrassing them.

Cooke: Was that a deliberate ______? Was that something planned or was it something that somebody had conceptualized and said, "Well lets make the people realize that God is colorblind."

Smyth: Hard for people to realize that. But this head of the Ushers Guild said, "What should I do?" if a group of blacks come into the church. I said, "What should you do? They are people, sit them anywhere they want to sit." About the same time I got a card from out General Assembly's Office on Social Justice: Has your session taken a stand on the membership of non-whites? And the seating of non-whites too? And I took that to the session. I said, "It's time for this session to get on the ball. A decisions has got to be made." I ______ by the session on the church. They said, "Appoint a committee to make a study." Always you appoint a committee. I said, "Well, who should appoint it?" "You'll appoint it and bring your recommendations to us, and if we don't like it we'll throw it out," and then plan to throw me out too. So I appointed as chairman of the committee Oran McGill, who had served 25 years as a missionary in China. He was Mississippi then but he knew what the call was...


End Tape 1, Side 1

{ Tape 1, Side 1 - Tape 1, Side 2 }


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