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John Smith

My great-grandfather, John Smith, remains one of my most stubborn brick walls and one of my most elusive relatives. These are the factors that complicate this search:

-Of course, his name, which is judged to be the most common name in the world
-He eventually migrated to Jacksonville, FL (from Georgia) a huge city with a very large black population
-His father was white (via oral history & DNA testing), his mother’s name is unknown, which suggests I probably won’t find him in an early census family group
-Sources differ with regard to what county he came from in Georgia
-The earliest I can only identify him with any certainly is on the 1930 census, and possibly as early as 1909 in the city directories
Most of the family members (siblings, etc.) died young and very little oral history survives about him

Talk about frustrating. On top of that, his family history with his wife and my great-grandmother Georgia is utterly confusing. I have never found a marriage license for them, but they are living together as husband and wife in 1930, and the 1935 Florida State census. I think I found them on the 1945 state census as well, but the copy is pretty unreadable.

1930 Census

In 1920, Georgia is listed in the census as head of the household, but with a different surname, Gardener (it was Garner). Finding this record was a huge breakthrough for me for her. Although John is not there, she already has several children in the house with the surname Smith.

1920 Census

That led me to believe she had been married before to a Garner (which no one in my family knew). I found that couple on the 1910 census which also confirmed that Georgia was not from Jacksonville, as oral history reported, but from Madison County, FL, about 100 miles west!

1910 Census

In that year, she was married to a man named Isaac Garner and I was able to find their marriage record. Oddly, even though they had several children, she also had a Smith child in the household and this marriage is listed as her second…???. I located Georgia’s mother, Matilda, in that same census, with her husband Perry Davis. One of Georgia’s Smith children seems to be living with them.

1910 Davis Census

Hmmmm…what exactly is going on here? Whatever it is, I haven’t figured it out yet. Now I’m wondering if Georgia married John in Madison County before she married Isaac Garner, but I haven’t found the marriage record in that county yet either.

Georgia Smith died in 1937 at the age of 45 from pneumonia.

Georgia's Death Certificate

Georgia's Death Certificate

John lived a quiet life, raising his children, working what would have been considered a good job at the Mason Lumber Company as a fireman. John died in 1960. My father & uncle remember him well, as he spent a lot of time at their house when they were growing up.

Some of the things working in my favor are:  the rich city directories for Jacksonville. I have many of them, but still need some of the missing years. In the earlier years, there are many different black John Smiths living in the same area, so these are good sources to try to distinguish between the various John Smiths, using their addresses. I also pulled many John Smith WWI draft registrations that I will use towards the same purpose. There are also good collection of Jacksonville maps (especially Sanborn maps) available online at several universities. I also found several deeds to the family house, which the Mason Lumber Company actually sold to John. He raised his family there, and his son William raised my dad & uncle in that house as well. It no longer stands.

1438 Harrison Street

Other evidence I’ve located thus far include:

  • John’s SS5 application naming father Simon, mother unknown, birthplace Tifton County, GA
  • John’s obituary, as well as his son William
  • Several of the death certificates for the Smith/Garner children
  • John did not appear to have a headstone, although I know where he is buried. I could not find a headstone or obituary for Georgia.

Now I’m in the process of trying to hire a researcher who lives in Jacksonville to pull some of these records for me and do some more research. I don’t get there often. My present goals are to keep researching the cluster of people: Georgia’s first marriage to Isaac, her parents, find all the children, and I’m also researching some of the people who are seen living with them in the census records.

I press on to uncover the life of John Smith.

I have been remiss to acknowledge the Ancestor Approved Award I received from Renate and Dionne some time ago. My kindest thanks for this, and please blame it on my heart and not my head!)

I have been humbled by how soon after enslavement many of my ancestors purchased land and realized education for their children, surprised by simply how much information I have been able to uncover, and remain enlightened in my own life by reflecting on the struggles they had. Nothing in my life seems that hard or troubling anymore.

Everyone I would pass this award to already has it…so I guess that means we are all equally approved in our genealogical journeys;)

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This post is about the grandfather I never got a chance to meet because he died when I was two years old.

William (or Bill as he was called) was born on October 6, 1914 in Jacksonville, Florida. He was born into a working class family and lived in a poor neighborhood on the eastside of Jacksonville. He attended the public schools of the city, and in the picture below, he is shown as a young boy at the Midway school.

William Smith, dead center

His father, John, had migrated from Georgia at some point in the early 1900s and secured what would have been a good job at the Mason Lumber Company as a fireman. The company even sold him his house. Bill’s mother, Georgia Harris, died of pneumonia when he was a 23-year old man.

Bill and car

Bill seems to have always had an entrepreneurial spirit, and at the age of 9, he started running errands for a local pharmacy. He later worked at another pharmacy owned by a Jewish man, called Bernie’s Pharmacy, and the two would share a lifelong friendship. Bill eventually worked himself up to where he could manage and run the entire pharmacy. This must have been exciting for him, to make a little money. In this picture on the right, he is a young man and posing in front of a car he had purchased.

Bill met my grandmother, Pauline Waters, while she was a first year teacher at the Methodist run Boylan School, a private school in Jacksonville for negro girls. She was one of three new black teachers at the school, and they were allowed to invite a local social group in for group discussions. The group was called “The Revellers”, and it just so happened that Bill was President of that group.

Bill is center bottom

Pauline was a staunch Christian, a minister’s daughter, and did not suffer fools. She had a very regal air about her, which comes through in this comment about Bill in her autobiography:

“I don’t know why Bill was so gone on me except by God’s leading because I was not the most attractive of the group. Let me say, however, that in all of my life I was never without at least one admirer and I never had to go get any one of them. I only made an effort to be charming, intelligent and sweet at all times…I had self-esteem all right and not more than I should have…Bill courted me three years and married me in the summer of 1938 on the lawn of my father’s Methodist Parsonage.”

Pauline

Bill was clearly gone on Pauline. My grandmother saved a cache of love letters written between them in the years before and right after marriage. Bill says:

“Dearest Sugar Pie, I’m proud of the fact that such a darling girl as you is going to be my wife. Gosh, I feel silly looking forward to an event of this nature…”

“Pauline, I think about you every 1/1000th of a second…”

“Honey my love for you is again and again…”

Bill promised to work hard and make a good life for them and he fulfilled that promise. By the late-1940s, Bill had two pharmacies of his own, affectionately known around town as the Willie Smith stores. My father grew up working in those stores. Bill became a popular fixture in black Jacksonville of that era, known as being a hard-working (7 days a week) and generous man, and was often mentioned in the local newspaper. He was a trustee at Ebenezer Methodist Church, a member of Omega Phi Psi, on the board of directors for the Urban League, a president of the Jacksonville Negro Business League, and one of the founders of the colored YMCA.

A Willie Smith store

Bill with workers

News article

From Article

He did so well for the family, that they were able to afford a beach house at American Beach, which was the colored beach in Jacksonville. He was known for being extremely charitable, and would give money and time to those in need. He was a close friend of Eartha MM White, a woman who, along with her daughter Clara, reached national fame for her accomplishments. To say that Bill Smith was utterly beloved by the community would not be an overstatement.

Bill the minister

My father and uncle remember their father Bill as a man who worked all the time, and provided well for his family. Consequently, they don’t recall having too many conversations with him, which is why my father has always believed in having lots and lots of talks with me and my siblings. By the late 1960s, the heyday of the stores had passed and a depressed economy led to their closure. Undaunted, my grandfather began a second, though brief, career as a minister. That’s his wife Pauline’s work, I guarantee you.

I grew up knowing 3 of my grandparents, so this 4th one has always been a larger than life figure to me. I am fortunate to have not only a short biography he wrote about himself, but also his wife’s autobiography, and my dad, uncle and mother’s first-hand recollections. How I would have loved to know him.

I’ll close with a scene whose memory still moves my father to tears. Bill’s funeral, of course drew most of black Jacksonville out to say their final goodbyes. During the wake, after it had cleared out, an unknown woman appeared and walked up to the casket. She looked down at Bill, closed her eyes and sighed. My dad had no idea who this woman was, and when he walked up to her, she simply said.

“Your daddy was such a good man.”

Bill Smith

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