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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.


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Begin Side 2

Cooke: Ok, we're back again, we just got interrupted.

Smyth: Ok, we are back with Oran McGill as chairman, who'd been a missionary in China for the YMCA. One member, and I have _______ I'll give you a copy of our history. One from Prince Edward County, and everybody knows what Prince Edward County is noted for. But I knew he was a real Christian, and he would sweat blood over trying to find the Christian answer.

Cooke: Who was that?

Smyth: He's listed in that history I'll give you. One other from the what we called the Black _______, Virginia but again a good solid Christian and I knew it would cause him a lot of blood, sweat, and tears but he'd come out on the right side. One from __________, Virginia and the tradition in his community was "Black - -don't let the sun set on you in the county"

Cooke: What county was that?

Smyth: That was up the valley and after the _________. I told Mr. McGill, "Make it a steady committee, and when you have a unanimous report to bring, bring it to the session, and we'll vote on it." And I'll give you a copy of all that. They parted over it for several months and came back finally with a unanimous decision of the committee, not even mentioning segregation or integration, saying that in accordance with the Book of Church Order of the Presbyterian Church and a Christian commitment to the Presbyterian Church that anyone who makes a credible profession of faith in the Lord Jesus Christ shall be admitted to _________ and seated anywhere in the church they want to. And also any group, whether integrated or not, any group wishing to use the facilities if the Board of Deacons can arrange a meeting place they shall admitted with no questions. Now we had a church day school, 135 children, that was before the public school had a kindergarten age group. The wife of the AME pastor, ArchieRichmond, they had a child. And Archie came to me and said, "I don't embarrass you or put you on the spot, but we'd like to enroll our child in the Presbyterian Nursery School. Would it be all right?" I said, "Of course it's all right. Glad to have her." Mrs. Hill, who was principle of our school said, "Just don't mention it. Just go ahead and enroll the child like you would anybody else." Well that got misinterpreted to the chairman of the committee in charge of our nursery school, and he came for the session and said, "When we voted for letting anyone come into the church who made a profession of faith in Christ, I didn't know that was going to apply to the church nursery school too."

Cooke: __________ a profession of faith.

Smyth: Always have to. So he said, "I asked Mrs. Hill, the superintendent of our school, how about that?" And she said, "Well, Ellison said don't say anything about it, go ahead." And he interpreted that I had told her to keep it hush-hush. I hadn't meant that at all. I meant enroll the child just as you would enroll any other child. And so he brought that to the session. I had learned by that time that with the president of the college with a fixation against integration and the members of the faculty, 90 percent of them were members of the faculty, and he was holding a club and I had just had moral persuasion. I started at the end, lined up in a circle in the session meetings when the issue came up. I started at the other end away from Dr. Newman, and I asked the first man, pretty sure that he was going to answer right and he did. He said that he had no objection at all to blacks being admitted to the church or the nursery school. I went around from one after the other like that and finally got around to Dr. Newman, he said, "I'll just have to vote no!" And he got up and walked out, and that's the time he left the church. As I say, I was happy that a few years afterwards, after the dust had settled, all those animosities had died down. I had good friendly relations with the people who had been most bitterly opposed before.

Cooke: Well, let me ask you another question that is related to an earlier one. You mentioned at a PTA meeting that there had been a lot contention. Well, outside the PTA meeting were there other meetings that were held concerning the desegregation of the schools? Were you a participant?

Smyth: The only other meetings that I know of were after we organized the Committee of Human Relations. And we met in the cafeteria first of the local school. I got J. Blair Morton I believe his name was, who was a retired school official in the state but who didn't believe in Harry Byrd's stand on national resistance. He was the speaker. He spoke very diplomatically, and it didn't raise much dust, but at least it helped some people to choose sides. Then after that, the committee on Human Relations, we could meet in the AME church, all right no question. And the Black Baptist Church, which was really the first Baptist Church in Blacksburg.

Cooke: On Clay Street?

Smyth: That's right. We could meet there with no question. Jack Wacha-ma-callit who was rector of the Episcopal Church, he could determine who could meet in their common hall, and so we didn't have any problem there. The real problem was when I took it to Presbyterian session, and it took as I said, it took a year or so before the session came around and found stride. Then we had integrated meetings in our church with no question, and happily it's gone on from there. Well, there was a question there, and you'll find that in the history I'll give you, the opening of the doors of the white churches in someways weakened the black churches who were doing a good work. And there was a question there, "Should it be done?" I haven't an answer to that yet. But our doors are open, but there are a very few blacks that come. We have a couple of men from India. I think we have one black family. We have some Orientals, but I don't think there's any drive because of the reluctance to do anything that might weaken the existing black churches. I don't know what the answer to that is.

Cooke: I gave a talk a few years ago and the question was, "When will our churches ever be integrated?" I gave a black history talk on that. I think that's the question that you're grappling with.

Smyth: That's right. Now when our church, it's now 117 Main Street, the oldest building on Main Street. It was built in 1848. William Thomas, I'll have to look up his name, he had his slaves do the labor on the church. There's a slave gallery with an outside back entrance. That slave gallery is still there, though the steeple is gone. You'll find a description of that in the history I wrote. But the gallery is still there, and it has been a meeting hall for one of the fraternities, Oddfellows I believe. It has been a conceptual clothing store. It had been a nightclub, which I'm sure made the Presbyterian fathers turn over in their graves.

Cooke: Was that a black or white...

Smyth: White. And it is now a restaurant. Of course it's integrated. So that's the history of that building. We moved from that building to the one on Roanoke Street in 1904 which is now Church of God. I was baptized, I guess I was about the last person baptized in the old church on Main Street in January 1904. We moved into the other church in 1904.

Cooke: Which is now the Church of God?

Smyth: Now the Church of God. And that had a gallery. The cadets, all students had to be in the cadet corps. I entered VPI in 1921. I was a buck private in the rear rank of E Company and was in the parade for Marshall F_____ in Richmond in 194_.

Cooke: That was the French...

Smyth: Yeah. The French general _______ of all the Allied Forces during World War I.

Cooke: So I guess he was making the Victory Tour as we would call it today.

Smyth: That's right. But I was the buck private in the rear ranks of that parade. When the Highty Tighties got that name and then in 1895 Oscar Stalls, he and his brother John played on the press football team, V. A. M. C. it was then, Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College. My father coached the first football team as well as being the head of biology and the dean of the college. In 1905 it changed from V. A. M. C. to V. P. I., Virginia Polytechnic. McBryde was president. They had to write a new yell for the college because now it was not V. A. M. C. but V.P.I. Oscar Stalls was a senior in that class of 1905 and he wanted to go to his senior prom, admission five dollars. He didn't have five dollars. But they offered five dollars prize for whoever wrote the best yell, using V. P. I. instead of V. A. M. C. He sat down and wrote, "Hokie, Hokie, Hokie Hi! Polytech's Virginia. Ray Ri VPI, Tee Tee Tee" He got the first prize, and he went to his prom. Five dollars. So they're still called the Hokies. That's where that came from.

Cooke: Oh, that's where that came from. He just thought it up.

Smyth: He thought it up. They used to ask Oscar, "What in the world does Hokie mean?" "It doesn't mean anything. It's just a good thing to yell."

Cooke: I guess we have covered most of the ground in terms of the interview. There's one other thing. The black businessmen, how much of a role did they play? Was there any significant class of black businessmen? We mentioned John Sears.

Smyth: The only business that I know of was John Sears barbershop. They did skilled carpentry work. They were carpenters, worked on the farm, some of them worked at the college. But there was a pretty general understanding of the colored line.

Cooke: Do you think that led to a lot of the blacks leaving the area?

Smyth: They just never were in this area.

Cooke: Even among the ones who did live here, was there a lack of jobs?

Smyth: Lack of jobs yeah. It was a real problem, in fact it still is. It still is for young blacks to find employment here. (Speaks to someone else in room) Mary Linda, this is Mike.

Cooke: How are you doing?

Mary Linda: How are you?

Cooke: Pretty good. Nice meeting you.

Mary Linda: Nice to know you.

End of Interview


Addition added by Michael Cooke after the interview to clarify information that was unclear during the interview:
Ellison Smyth referred to Booker T. that he played against, Booker T. in terms of football. He did not mean the Booker T. Washington of historical theme. He referred to a person who was known in the community as Booker T. A number of black family's named their sons after Booker T. Washington.



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