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Remembering CEE alumnus William Walter Smith, first African-American graduate of Illinois

2/3/2021 3:05:48 PM

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William Walter Smith. Courtesy of the University of Illinois Archives.

In honor of Black History Month, we remember CEE alumnus William Walter Smith, who in 1900 became the first African-American graduate of the University of Illinois. Smith earned an A.B. and B.S. in Literature and Arts, along with a professional degree in Civil Engineering.

Smith was born in Broadlands, Ill., the son of George W. and Mary Oglesby Gaines Smith. George Smith, formerly enslaved, was a farmer in Broadlands. The younger Smith graduated from high school in Homer, Ill. At the University of Illinois, he was editor-in-chief of the weekly Illini from 1899-1900, now The Daily Illini. He also participated in the Republican Club, the class football team, the rifle team, the Philomathean Literary Society and was a Hatchet orator. According to University records, Smith also “proposed to the University President that there be a bookstore on the corner of Wright and Green Streets so students traveling along the ‘Illini Trail’ shortcut could access materials and supplies more easily.”

As a civil engineer, Smith worked overseas in Argentina, overseeing construction projects for Armour & Co. He later sold structural steel products in Chile. At some point he legally changed his name to Walter Smith Oglesby. He died around 1940 in Philadelphia.

Sources for this story included the University of Illinois; “This Legacy is Yours Too: Celebrating the Lasting Contributions of African-American Men,” a project of the Museum of the Grand Prairie, Champaign County Forest Preserve District; and Noah Lenstra, a contributor on localwiki.org.