Gideon Smith was the first African-American to participate in athletics at MSU and one of the first in the country to play intercollegiate football. And lest we forget, he was not only a pioneering football player at Michigan Agricultural College, but he also was one of the first African-American males to graduate.
Smith was born in Northwest Norfolk County, Va., on July 13, 1889, just 24 years after the abolition of slavery. Believe it or not but Gideon Smith actually played football at Ferris State for two years before transferring to the Michigan Agricultural College. In those days, Ferris founder Woodbridge Ferris had a working agreement with what is now known as Hampton University in Virginia to bring about a dozen black students a year to Ferris. They were given college prep classes and then transferred on to places such as Michigan State and Michigan. Smith was among the students and discovered his athletic prowess at Ferris.
But he still had to overcome challenges. Although Jim Crow America was not as bad in Michigan as it was in Virginia, it still existed.
When Smith decided to try out for the all-White MAC team in 1912, Coach Macklin wouldn’t issue him a practice uniform, temporarily blocking him from participating. However, a veterinary student named Chuck Fuffy loaned Smith his old high school uniform so he showed up for practice anyway and eventually won over Coach Macklin.
1913 Michigan Agricultural College football team
Smith’s biggest challenge came on Oct. 11, 1913, when his team faced off against Michigan. The Wolverines simply dominated the Aggies in their first seven match-ups producing such scores as 39-0, 119-0, 46-0 and 55-7. To everyone’s surprise, MAC took a quick 12-0 lead, and held on for the win by a final score of 12-7. Smith played a key role in the 1913 game by taking down Michigan’s quarterback several times. The Detroit Free Press called the contest “among the biggest upsets in college football history.” It was also MAC’s first win over Michigan.
MAC students and teammates tried to be supportive, but Gideon obviously faced challenges the average white student would never think of. “Students used to walk Smith home on Friday nights before games to see that he arrived safely and got a good night’s sleep.”
On the field teammates also tried to help out, but there were times when he had to deal with issues all alone. “If you wanted to have a bunch of aroused Aggies on your hands, all you had to do was make some slur at Gideon or throw a loose elbow his way,” former Michigan State multi-sport star and administrator Lyman Frimodig once said. End Blake Miller, who lined up next to Smith, put it a lot more bluntly; “the abuse he took from opponents was unprintable, but Smith kept quiet and did his job, eventually earning the respect of friends and foes alike.”
However, road trips could be even more challenging. Not allowed to check into the team’s whites-only hotel on road trips, Smith would get off the train and ask Macklin what time practice would be held? With money provided by Macklin to pay for food and lodging in the local black community, Smith would not be seen by Aggies again except at practice, at the game, and on the train ride back to East Lansing.
The media of the day had their own peculiar way of celebrating Smith’s exploits. After MAC’s 75-6 victory over Akron in 1914, the Saginaw Courier-Herald singled Smith out with a headline that read: “Julian Makes Seven Touchdowns, While Negro Lineman Furnishes Thrill with Sprint for 95-Yard Gain.”
The following season, Smith was instrumental in the Aggies’ 56-0 victory against Carroll in 1915.”Gideon Smith, the giant negro tackle of MAC, was in the limelight throughout the game,” said The Lansing Press. “On one occasion, he intercepted a forward pass and ran 20 yards for a touchdown, and later he took the ball half the length of the field for another score. Throughout the game, he was called on to take the ball and never failed to gain.”
In the subsequent 24-0 victory over the Wolverines by a score of 24-0 ─ memorialized by posters as “The Slaughter on Ferry Field” ─ in Ann Arbor, “Gideon Smith added to his enviable record by stopping play after play,” reported a student newspaper. “He seemed to be in on every play and his presence meant death to Michigan’s efforts.” It was also MAC’s second win against the Wolverines.
After Smith’s final college game, representatives of the greater Lansing area presented him with a gold watch for his contributions to what would eventually become known as Michigan State University. Smith was also named to All-Star teams picked by the Chicago Daily News and Collier’s Magazine. He decided to try out professional football, joining Jim Thorpe and the Canton Bulldogs just in time to face former Notre Dame stars Knute Rockne and Gus Dorais of the Massillon Tigers.
After one season, Smith left to serve in World War I. Upon his return home in 1920, he would become a professor at Hampton Institute (Hampton University) and become the head football coach one year later. In his second season as head coach, Smith and the Hampton Pirates won the black college national championship in 1922 with a 5-1 record. Smith would go on to be the face of Hampton football and lead the team from the sidelines until 1940.
After retiring from coaching in 1940, Smith served as Hampton’s assistant athletic director for 15 years. In 1947, Smith showed his devotion to education by returning to Michigan Agricultural College to earn his masters degree. In 1955, Smith retired from his position as assistant athletic director at Hampton. He passed away in 1968 at the age of 78.
Honors received: American Football Coaches Association’s recipient of the 2014 Trailblazer Award, an award created to honor early leaders in the football coaching profession who coached at historically black colleges and universities. He was also a charter member of the Michigan State Athletics Hall of Fame and was inducted into the Hampton University Athletics Hall of Fame as well.
Another Gideon Smith story. Jimmy Raye arrived at Michigan State as a freshman in the fall of 1964 from segregated Fayetteville, N.C. He said portrait of Smith at Jenison Fieldhouse inspired him, deciding if Smith could overcome obstacles in 1913 he could do the same 50 years later.
“It was so remarkable to see a black football player from 1913, and my initial thoughts were to try to imagine what kind of support system he had in the environment that existed at that time,” said Raye. “What a tremendous individual Gideon must have been, and couple that with the extraordinary talent he must have possessed to be issued a uniform. I realized what he faced must have been overwhelming, and later I felt the obstacles I faced were not as insurmountable.”
Raye would later write a book called “Raye of Light” on Michigan State’s leading role in the integration of college football under head coach Duffy Daugherty, but also found time to recall Gideon Smith in Chapter 5.
For more information, see Gideon Smith: Warrior of His Time, from Big Ten Celebrating Black History Month, February 13, 2008.
Steve Grinczel, “Celebrating the Legacy of Gideon Smith“, MSUSpartans.com, October 15, 2013.
Joe Rexrode, “Spartans’ first black player, Gideon Smith, helped M.A.C beat Michigan for first time in 1913”, Detroit Free Press, November 1, 2013.
Tom Shanahan, “Ferris State and Michigan State pioneer Gideon Smith honored”, Tom Shanahan Report, December 19, 2014.
For a sketch of Smith in the 1914 MAC Football program and other photographs, see Steve Grinezel, Michigan State Football : They are Spartans. Arcadia Press, 2003, pp.2 and 17.