Major N. Clark Smith in Chicago

By Ohman, Marian M. | Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, Spring 2003 | Go to article overview

Major N. Clark Smith in Chicago


Ohman, Marian M., Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society


Uncertainty clouds many details about N. Clark Smith's early life. Collective evidence suggests the place of his birth was Leavenworth, Kansas, and the year most probably was 1866, only one year after the 13th Amendment to the Constitution ratified the Emancipation Proclamation and officially abolished slavery. Although Kansas held the reputation of being more liberal than other Midwestern and Southern states, both racism and segregation existed within the community where Smith grew to manhood, and it prevailed in Missouri, Illinois, and Alabama, where he spent his mature years. When the educational and social factors impacting an African American's life are framed within the realistic conditions and restrictions of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Smith's achievements are truly remarkable. Contemporary accounts of life in his community frequently reflect the struggles many from this aspiring generation endured, and also convey the diverse philosophies that existed within their ranks. Smith entered the world of music and education with determination, a rigorous work ethic, and a passionate dedication to his muse. Through his teaching and leadership he shared his knowledge, interests, and talent with the African-American community, and honored the musical traditions associated with its heritage.

Missing records and unreliable evidence handicap an accurate portrayal of N. Clark Smith's life and lead to speculation. There are no immediate descendents, and fire apparently destroyed most of his vast collection of personal papers, precluding glimpses into his private life and thoughts.1 Documented evidence related to Smith's life is limited and frequently wrong. Most biographical entries contain inaccurate or conflicting information. African-American newspapers serve as the primary source for data, and they do provide an overview of Smith's activities with a sense of his working environment, but frequently contain questionable or obviously exaggerated accounts. All elements combine to produce a tattered personal history.

Early in his life, Smith began associating with a broad spectrum of people-black and white, rich and poor, established scholars alongside those just beginning their educational ascent, male and female musicians, along with men who were highly successful in the commercial music business. He appeared as comfortable with celebrities who had achieved national recognition as with his next-door neighbors who sang in the church choir. Such factors coalesce and depict an admirable man living in an age of transition, a time when African Americans sought their rightful place in American society.

Until his mid-twenties Smith lived in Leavenworth, Kansas. Details of his early education remain murky, although the 1870 census identifies the fourteen year old as a "printer." In 1888 he and a colleague established and briefly published a local newspaper, the Advocate, but Smith sold his interest the following year. This experience in journalism proved beneficial; throughout his career, his knowledge of the press and its impact helped promote his activities.

During these same years he found time for music. While a youth, he established an association with the Hoffman music company in Leavenworth, directed church choirs, sang with a quartette, and organized a "Pickaninny Band." Although Smith gave serious consideration to the field of journalism, by the early 1890s his career path veered toward music.

Smith's affinity for Chicago dates from the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition where an extraordinary combination of architecture and graceful design presented an unprecedented setting of grandeur. The occasion also gave talented, young African Americans the opportunity to observe public performances by preeminent leaders of their community, and to place them in situations where a personal contact might occur. An indelible memory, Smith declared, was his meeting with an ageing heroic figure, Frederick Douglass (1817-1895) and it was from Douglass, Smith claimed, that he received inspiration to respect and preserve the African influence in their African-American musical heritage. …

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