The Smith family is an African-American farming family in Champaign County which has owned agricultural land since 1876.
George W. Smith was a slave who escaped from Tennessee in 1862 and joined the Union army because he was told a group of white men was going to lynch him. His mother was Amy Smith and his father was thought to be a white slaveowner. George got educated by watching the slaveowner's white children being taught. One time when the white school children could not answer a question, the teacher was trying to make the children feel dumb when he said, "I bet even George could answer that question." Nobody expected George to be able to answer correctly and they were all surprised when he did. Later, the
slaveowner and others found out that the teacher was letting George listen, learn, and answer questions and they stopped George from going to school because blacks weren't supposed to be educated at that time. The school teacher was still interested in George so he sneaked him a book and George kept on reading and writing anyway. During the Civil War, George served as a guide for several generals.
After the war, he went to Springfield, Illinois with General John A. McClernand where he met and married Mary E. Oglesby Gaines; their children were Fred, Charles, John, William, Anna, and Salona. Mary had a son from her previous marriage named Albert A. Gaines. One son, William W. Smith, studied Civil Engineering at the University of Illinois and another son, John M. Smith, was a well-known horseman in Illinois who won 35 trophies and many ribbons.
His great-granddaughters include Brenda Kay Smith, of Champaign County, granddaughter of John M. Smith and Frances Smith. Frances, was well-known for her delicious fried chicken. She told us that the Smith family has always thought that working hard and learning were very important in their lives. Brenda Smith continues this tradition. In addition to her work at Prairie Center as a counselor for people with
alcohol and drug problems, she takes night classes at Parkland Community College to become a Registered Nurse.
George W. Smith's family has owned farmland in Broadlands, Illinois since 1876. George started by buying 80 acres and increased his farm area to 437 acres before he died. In 1876, it was unusual for African
Americans to be involved in farming because there were 462 black people in Champaign County and most of them were employed as household help at that time. George W. Smith was the only black farmer in
Champaign County for a number of years and he was one of the first in the state. His neighbors respected him because he was an intelligent farmer, being the first to drain the water from his farmland. This was important because the land was marshy and the plants would drown.
In 1983, the Smith family got a Centennial Farm Award because the land had been owned by the same family for over 100 years. If you visited the farm now, you wouldn't see the home, you would just see two
outbuildings. One hundred sixty acres of farmland is still owned by the family, but a friend does the farming. The property is in a trust for Brenda, her brother, and her two cousins, who will inherit the land. George W. Smith was born in 1836 and died in 1911. His funeral was one of the largest ever held in Broadlands, Illinois.
News of his death was reported as far away as Dallas, Texas, which reported in the Dallas Morning News on January 4, 1912: "FORMER SLAVE WORTH $116,000 AT DEATH: NEGRO ENGAGED IN FARMING AFTER WAR, BUYING LAND IN ILLINOIS. Champaign, Ill., Jan. 3.---Born a slave George W. Smith, colored, died today on his farm near Broadlands, in Champaign County, worth $116,000. Smith is believed to have been the wealthiest negro in the State. He was born a slave in Tennessee in 1836, but ran away in 1862, to join the Union Army, acting as a guide for Gen. J. A. Logan. After the war he engaged in farming near Springfield and in thirty-five years bought land in Champaign County, which in the last ten years has increased in value 124 per cent. The ex-slave was highly respected in his section. He gave his sons university educations, and one is a lawyer. His generosity is shown by leaving a stepson just as much as his own children."