Black hotelier was a force in city Contributor: Born in the 1860s, Thomas R. Smith was a wealthy man who was known for his generosity and his activities on behalf of Baltimore's Democrats.

REMEMBER WHEN

February 16, 1997|By Fred Rasmussen | Fred Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Thomas R. "Tom" Smith, who was once one of the most powerful black politicians in the state, has been nearly forgotten today.

At his death in 1938, he was regarded as one of the wealthiest and most generous blacks in Baltimore.

In 1912, he opened Smith's Hotel at Druid Hill Avenue and Paca Street, which was described as "a shrine to Baltimore's Negro population," when it was torn down in 1957.

"Best known as a politician, he also was one of the staunchest guardians of his race in the city," said The Sun in 1938.

"No Negro was too poor or too humble but that Tom Smith would go to his aid if he were in trouble, and Tom even braved arrest on charges of obstructing justice on one occasion, by aiding a member of his race he thought was being treated unfairly."

Born in Calvert County

Smith, who was born in Calvert County in the late 1860s -- his exact age at his death wasn't known but was placed as being near 70 -- had a limited education.

He came to Baltimore long before the turn of the century and opened a saloon at Jasper and New streets. He became so successful and well-known a figure in the black community that white political bosses were attracted to him.

Smith was active in Democratic politics for much of his life, a rarity for African-Americans in that era, although he never ran for office himself.

"He never showed any inclination toward the Republican party, the traditional party of his race, even after the G.O.P. victories in 1895, 1896 and 1897, when the Negro Democratic poll books showed almost complete blanks," reported The Sun.

Democratic political bosses -- notably I. Freeman Rasin, the city's most powerful Democrat from the 1870s until his death in 1907 -- called on Smith to help round up votes for the party in the black community.

"He performed yeoman service during state and city elections ever since, although he showed little interest in national elections," said The Sun.

Smith helped Howard W. Jackson in his political career and backed him for his first run for registrar of wills. Jackson won the election and later served as mayor.

"Some of the old stories have to do with events in his early life, when as a saloon keeper in the rough and tumble days of another political era, he built up a reputation of knowing how to handle men, no matter how tough they were," reported the Afro-American newspaper at the time of his death.

"He soon became an expert at playing the game in the only way a colored Democrat could play it in those days, and that was keeping possible Republican voters away from the polls."

Controversy

In a career that was not without controversy, he was accused of being involved with the Lucky Numbers Syndicate -- a gambling racket -- and arrested on charges of conspiracy.

"He was acquitted by Judge Charles F. Stein after R. Walter Graham, City comptroller; Brig. Gen. Washington Bowie Jr. and other men of high standing had testified as to his character," said The Sun.

He allowed no alcohol at the Smith Hotel, which was the center of his activities and a gathering place for blacks, who were excluded from downtown hotels.

His customers came from "as far north as New York and west to Chicago," said The Sun.

Unquestioning charity

He lived on a lavish estate at 6631 Reisterstown Road, near the city-county line, where he enjoyed raising goats and entertaining his friends and associates.

Always well-tailored, Smith favored finely cut suits, silk shirts and "round, rather than flat-crowned hats," reported the Afro.

He was known for his unquestioning charity and had one quirk when it came to churches. His cash donations were slight, but if he learned that a church was in need of money, he lent it; that way he wasn't connected to any church.

Of his generosity, the Afro-American reported, "Innumerable old, poor, or crippled persons were helped in the neighborhood of his hotel, [and] ofttimes he prevented families from being ejected, asking nothing in return.

"Gifts of food, coal, clothing and rent money were not only confined to the Christmas seasons but were dispensed when needed, it was learned."

He died Aug. 18, 1938, clutching a crucifix over his heart.

A group of girls from the St. Frances Orphanage at 22nd Street and Maryland Avenue, to which he contributed large sums, marched up the driveway of his estate under the guidance of a Catholic sister, and surrounded his satin-lined casket softly singing, "Jesus, Bless Him."

Smith's funeral, which was held at his home, drew many of the wealthy and powerful from the community -- among them Sen. George Radcliffe, Judge Edwin T. Dickerson, Rep. Andrew Kennedy and such political bosses as Willie Curran and Walter Hough.

The eulogy was spoken by the Rev. Frederick Douglas, who said to the assembled mourners, "Nothing else could bring you here except the greatness of the man and the manifest acknowledgment of the splendid contribution he has made to his country, his state, his municipality and to the men of every race.

"His obituary is written on the hearts of those of us who knew and who loved him best, there to remain forever enshrined in the souls of those of us whose lives he has touched."

Many mourners

Over 1500 mourners followed his bronze casket to Mount Auburn Cemetery, known by historians as the "City of the Dead for Colored People," where he was buried among such black notables as Joe Gans, the first black lightweight champion of the world, and Asbie Hawkins, the first black to seek election to the U.S. Senate, in Southwest Baltimore's Westport neighborhood.

Smith's estate of $200,000 was left to family members, servants, VTC hotel employees and Catholic orphanages.

"Tom Smith loved his people and did all he could to help them. The humble, the needy, the sick and the troubled went to him for much more than facile words of sympathy. He did what he could for them and that was usually a good deal," said The Sun in 1957.

Pub Date: 2/16/97

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