January 15, 2006
Robert Lloyd Smith is responsible for the socio-economic uplift of thousands of African Americans living in Texas, Oklahoma, and Arkansas at the onset of the twentieth century. A man who championed hard work and education, Smith sought the betterment of African Americans through a host of professional vehicles. Evolving from an educator to a politician to a highly successful businessman, Smith epitomized the African American’s industrious nature.
Born free in Charleston, South Carolina on January 8, 1861 to parents Francis Arthur and Mary Hamilton (Talbot) Smith, Smith was groomed at elite schools with those who eventually increased the black bourgeois as doctors, lawyers, businessmen, and teachers. At Avery Normal Institute in Charleston, Smith received an education that was modeled by missionaries in the classical tradition: students studied history, government, economics, languages and literature, methods of teaching, natural philosophy, and physiology, as well as applied subjects such as farming methods and sewing and cooking. Smith later enrolled in the University of South Carolina in 1875, but when the institution began denying African American applicants in 1877, he transferred to Atlanta University, later known as Clark Atlanta University, earning his Bachelor of science degree in English and Mathematics in 1880.
Becomes an Educator
After graduating from Atlanta University, Smith gravitated towards the teaching profession, a path that many alumni of Avery Normal Institute embarked upon. Unfortunately, in the 1870s, African American teachers were hired primarily in the rural areas of the South where schools floundered due to a lack of funding, poor attendance, dilapidated buildings, and scarce materials. The only recourse for aspiring teachers was to either travel north or west. Smith decided to venture west to Texas.
In Oakland, Texas, a small town midway between Houston and San Antonio, Smith began teaching at Oakland Normal School in Freedsmantown, the area of town predominately populated by African Americans. Founded in 1882, the mission of the Oakland Normal School was to prepare African Americans for the teaching profession. In 1885, when the city consisted of approximately two hundred residents, Smith became the principal of the school and continued to work for racial progress. During this time, Smith also became an aide to Booker T. Washington, who also believed in the liberating effect of a standard education. The two men developed a close connection which is evident in their written correspondence.
Serves in Texas Legislature
In 1894 Smith was elected to the twenty-fourth legislature in Texas as a Republican. Ironically, his election to the state legislature was the result of overwhelming support from a predominately white Colorado County at a time when few African Americans and Republicans were elected to public office in Texas. In 1896, he was reelected. Never wavering from his commitment to his race, he consistently introduced legislation pertaining to increasing educational opportunities for African American Texans, particularly those opportunities resulting from the advancement of Prairie View Normal School, a historically black college founded in 1879 now known as Prairie View Agricultural & Mechanical University.
Smith later returned to Prairie View to teach when his political life ended. From 1902 to 1909, Smith was appointed deputy U.S. marshal for the Eastern District of Texas by President Theodore Roosevelt. However, after the election of William Taft, Smith was removed from his post. He never held a public office again, and seventy years passed before another African American was elected to the Texas state legislature.
Excels in Business
While Smith lived in Oakland, he noticed an unsettling trend in the business affairs of the city’s farmers. Not only were the majority of farmers steeped in debt, but also their homes and farms were in disrepair. To combat this problem, Smith founded the Farmers’ Home Improvement Society in 1890, which was aimed at eradicating the oppressive sharecropper system while generating wealth through savings, implementing more efficient farming practices, and emphasizing the importance of creating cooperative-business networks.
In eight years, the membership of the society rose to approximately 1,800 members, and by 1909 the society could boast of approximately 21,000 members from Texas, Oklahoma, and Arkansas. The success of the society catapulted many African Americans to the middle, and even upper-class, as the total assets of its members swelled to well over $1 million. As a result of the society’s success, Smith founded several other cooperative institutions. They include a truck growers’ union; an agricultural college at Wolfe City founded in 1906; the Farmers’ Improvement Bank in Waco, founded in 1911; and the Woman’s Barnyard Auxiliaries.
In 1907, due to his savvy business acumen, Smith was elected the first president of the Texas branch of the National Negro Business League. Founded by Booker T. Washington in 1900, the National Negro Business League sought to manifest Washington’s ideologies of self-reliance and racial solidarity through all means of African American commerce. Its membership consisted of upwardly mobile African Americans engaged in business across the country. During this time, Smith continued to create businesses, such as a factory for manufacturing overalls, while still maintaining an active role in a host of black fraternal orders. In 1915, he organized the state’s Cooperative Extension Program for Negroes and became its first director while he was teaching at Prairie View. As director of the organization, Smith taught African American farmers improved agricultural methods.
Although Smith’s businesses and the Farmers’ Home Improvement Society flourished for nearly twenty years, after the Great Depression they gradually declined. For the remainder of his life, however, he was steadfast in his commitment to advancing the business practices of African Americans. When he died in 1942, Smith was survived by his second wife, Ruby Cobb, whom he married in 1919, and their two adopted children, Roscoe Smith, who worked as a cashier of the Farmers’ Improvement Bank at Waco, and Olive Bell, who taught at the Farmers’ Improvement Agricultural College.
Brewer, John M. Negro Legislators of Texas and Their Descendants Austin, TX: Jenkins, 1970.
Rice, Lawrence D. The Negro in Texas,1874–1900: A History of the Negro in Texas Politics from Reconstruction to Disfranchisement. Baton Rouge, La.: Louisiana State University, 1971.
Rice, Lawrence D. “Robert L. Smith 1861–1942.” Handbook of Texas Online. http://www.tsha.utexas.edu/handbook/online/articles/SS/fsm37.html (Accessed 15 January 2006).
Weathersby, Irvin, Jr. “Smith, Robert Lloyd.” Notable Black American Men, Book II. Ed. Jessie Carney Smith. Detroit: Gale, 2007. 605-607.