History 301: Wirt Smith (who?) was an Indianapolis trailblazer

For historical accuracy, this report contains terminology which newspapers of the time period used to describe African Americans.

By CONNIE ZEIGLER, Contributing editor

This is the story of Wirt Smith. Wirt Smith was a Black man and because of that he is not recorded in typical histories, but his story is one worth telling. And it ends with the most unusual of twists. 

A May 10, 1902, Indianapolis Recorder article opened the door to Wirt Smith’s existence. At the time the article was written he was 18 years old. With the headline “Culver Draws Color Line,” the article, in the city’s African American newspaper, related that Culver Military Academy canceled a baseball game with Manual Training High School’s team “all because the M.T.H.S. catcher, Wirt Smith, is a colored boy … Mr.  Fleet, the coach of the Culver team ‘explained that there were several ‘Southern boys’ on the Culver team who were averse to playing with a negro, and for this reason he would have to demand the withdrawal of Smith.’”

Mr. Abbott, the Manual coach’s “reply was emphatic in stating that the retention of Smith was of more moment to the M.T.H.S. team than games with a dozen Culver Institutes.” Smith, the Recorder noted, had “played  on the M. T. H. S. team against high school and college teams of the State and not the suggestion of an objection has been heard, the drawing of the color line being reserved for the academy boys.”

In 1902, Smith’s school was standing up for him against racist attitudes.

Smith was a “popular student” at Manual, according to the Recorder. This is backed up by a letter to the editor published 30 years later in May 1932, in which another former Manual student, Mary Fairfield Hawley, remembered that students in the graduating class of 1902, along with teachers and school staff, were allowed to choose 12 senior class essays that would be read at commencement. Hawley recalled that four essays garnered the most votes; Wirt Smith’s was one.

In a city that became known for its segregated schools, it is pleasantly surprising to read about a Black student at an integrated public high school in Indianapolis who was popular and whose White coach stood up for him.

But in 1902 the new Ku Klux Klan hadn’t surfaced as a political force in Indiana. It wasn’t yet in control of state government or the Indianapolis school board, and it had not yet forced the construction of an all-Black high school (which would be Crispus Attucks). Smith’s school, Emerich Manual High School, was at the time located at 525 South Meridian St. in a building that still stands today.

Wirt Smith was a person whose story is full of such interesting tidbits. He was the son of John Smith, principal of School 42, according to another mention he garnered in the Indianapolis Recorder on Jan. 17, 1903, which noted that he had entered college at Purdue University. He was one of only two Black graduates from Indianapolis to continue education beyond high school that year.

“Both go with the determination to take the entire course. We congratulate the boys and hope to be able to boast of many more of our own boys who are college graduates,” wrote the Recorder.

The Indianapolis News reported on Wirt Smith’s graduation just a little over a year after he entered classes at Purdue. Speeding through course work seemed to be a trait of Wirt’s.

According to The Indianapolis News, which praised the smart young man, and like the Recorder noted his race in a way that would now be considered pejorative in the headline: “Graduate in Pharmacy, Wirt Smith only Colored Member of Class of Thirty-Four at Purdue.”

The article also fills in some interesting personal information. “The only colored graduate in a class of thirty-four students graduated in pharmacy at Purdue last weekend, March 30, was Wirt Smith an Indianapolis young man, the son of John Smith, principal of North Indianapolis colored school. Mr. Smith, who is not yet 20 years of age, entered the Manual Training High School at the age of thirteen. He was graduated from this school in June 1902, at the age of seventeen. While a student at the Manual Training School he was a member of the ball team. He carried a large route of The Indianapolis News in the northeastern part of the city, from which he laid by enough to clothe himself and to pay his tuition. While at Purdue he received the highest marks given in all of his subjects save one, and in this he received a B.”

Wirt Smith was a man with a promising future, and he fulfilled that promise in Indianapolis. Soon after graduation Smith opened his own pharmacy serving the Black neighborhoods around Indiana Avenue. The Indianapolis Recorder carried an advertisement for his business in February 1908: “Take your prescriptions to R. Wirt Smith & Co. Greatest care used and pure drugs only. The only colored drug store in Indianapolis. Your trade is solicited. On Merit, corner of Senate Ave and 13th St. New Phone 410.”

In 1911, Wirt’s life changed again. The Indianapolis Recorder noted, “Richard Wirt Smith, the pharmacist, and Miss Dove Bertha Barbour, a teacher in the public school, were quietly married at noon, June 20. What the article fails to mention is that, according to their marriage record, Wirt was 27 and already by that time a widower. He was also the father of a daughter named Alpha.

By April 1915, the Recorder reported, there were four black pharmacists in Indianapolis. Wirt Smith was the only one in business for himself, however, still operating from his location at 1302 Senate Ave.

Wirt’s draft registration card collected between 1917 and 1918, during World War I, offers a little physical information about the man. It noted that he was 33, of “Medium height” and “Medium weight” and a “Negro.”

The 1920 Census showed Richerd [sic] Smith (33) and Dove Smith (32) shared their rented home at 622 Drake St. in Indianapolis Ward 4 with Dove’s sister, Florence Bennet. His occupation is listed as “druggist.” Dove’s was listed as “domestic,” but the location of her work was at “Home,” so she was either a homemaker or perhaps someone who took in domestic chores to work on in her home. Florence was a hair stylist.

The City Directory of 1930 shows Wirt Smith at the address of his pharmacy. It is the last mention of his pharmacy operating here. The Indianapolis News noted in Dove Smith’s obituary in June 1936 that she and Wirt moved to Trenton, N.J., in 1930. There, Wirt opened another drugstore. The obituary lists the only survivors as her husband and her sister. No mention of her stepdaughter, Alpha.

Both Wirt and Alpha show up one last time in the same article in 1939. It is an article on page 22 of The Indianapolis News, Feb 1, 1939. It is a notice of Wirt Smith’s death. And it holds another surprise:

“Richard Wirt Smith, age 54, and father-in-law of Louis Armstrong, widely known colored trumpet player and band leader, died in Trenton New Jersey.”

Services for Wirt Smith were held in Indianapolis at King and King funeral    home. He is buried at Crown Hill Cemetery. He operated his drug store here for 25 years. His only survivor was his daughter, Mrs. Louis Armstrong. Yes, that Louis Armstrong.

NEXT: The story of Wirt Smith’s daughter, Alpha Smith Armstrong.  

Connie Zeigler is a historian who researches and writes about design history and Indianapolis and owns C. Resources, a preservation consulting firm.