The McLean County History Museum Archives serves as the repository for the Bloomington-Normal Black History Project. The project houses a diverse collection of materials that tell the rich stories of black residents who lived and worked and contributed to the well-being of their community – many of whom, over time, have become “hidden” characters. One such individual is the late Navy veteran, pilot, flight instructor, and civil rights activist Joseph Mack Smith.
Born in Litchfield on April 11, 1911, Smith arrived in Bloomington in 1929. He attended Illinois State Normal University for three years and studied football. He also attended Wilberforce University in Ohio. Smith married Cora Keene of Alton in 1936. The 1937 Bloomington City Directory lists her occupation as “Chauffeur, Murray and Carmody Funeral Home”. This type of work was typical of blacks, as other job opportunities were rarely granted at the time.
McLean County has a long history of volunteering for military service. Smith was one of them, enlisting in the Navy to fight in World War II. He followed a family tradition as his father, Floyd Smith, served in the Navy in World War I and re-enlisted in World War II, serving in the South Atlantic. Joseph’s brother, Theodore, also served in the navy and was stationed on a ship in the Pacific.
While on home leave in July 1943 to see his wife, Cora, at their home at 708 S. Oak St. in Bloomington, Chief Steward Joseph Smith spoke with Pantagraph reporter Harold Liston.
In the interview, Smith shared that he carried the scars of torpedo fragments with him. He was injured when two torpedoes hit the ship in the North Atlantic. The order was given to abandon ship and Smith found himself on a life raft adrift at sea for three days before being picked up by a British corvette.
He had a close friend who was killed in the attack and swore to avenge his death. Smith received gunnery training at Naval Station Great Lakes on Lake Michigan and became a gunnery crew captain.
Returning from the war, Smith turned his head towards the sky and obtained his pilot’s license at Bloomington airport in 1945. He did not stop there. He then earned an instructor rating in 1948. Smith taught flying at Lakeside Airport in East St. Louis and was able to return to Bloomington as a flight instructor in 1958 at Bloomington Airport.
Additionally, as a flight instructor for Capital Aviation in Springfield, Smith served as an accident prevention advisor. He became the second person outside the Federal Aviation Administration to receive such a designation.
Unbeknownst to most, in December 1967, Richard Knoedler of Streator, owner of Norbi Air, the operator of Bloomington Airport, announced that Smith would be the airport’s new manager. However, shortly thereafter Clark Aviation took over as operator of the airport and appointed Smith chief instructor for its pre-flight ground school in March 1968.
In March 1969, Smith was cleared by the FAA to conduct multi-engine land flight tests as a check pilot, flying the Beechcraft 95-55 and the Cessna 310. It was quite an achievement indeed.
As Smith pursued his aspirations in the sky, he was also busy on the ground, immersed in the fight for equal rights. Further research into his life reveals that he served as president of the local NAACP and was outspoken on equality issues as early as 1955.
He wrote a letter to the editor of the Pantagraph titled “Believes the law is the only path to racial equality.” The letter was a rebuttal of a Pantagraph editorial which suggested progress was being made on “the rapid and effective elimination of racial barriers without a Fair Employment Practices Commission (FEPC)”.
In response to these assumptions, Smith said: “Yet the examples of progress cited in the editorial are those in which such progress has been achieved through the enactment of a law, either through legislation, or by court decisions establishing a precedent.” Smith went on to say, “Although the Pantagraph opposes the FEPC, it provides contradictory evidence of the erasure of racial barriers by the very process it condemns, that of progress coming from new laws emanating from the legislatures and courts.”
The letter was signed, “JOSEPH M. SMITH President, Bloomington-Normal NAACP.”
Interestingly, this kind of local public debate took place the same year the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. graduated from Boston College seminary.
Indeed, Smith was very communal. He and his wife, Cora, were well-connected in black and white communities. He served as a porter for notable members of the black community, along with Girard Covington (Dr. Eugene Covington’s son), Paul Ward and Reginald Whitaker.
Smith ran for Bloomington City Council in 1953, and he was a charter member of the Bloomington Corn Belt Kennel Club for more than 25 years, judging dog shows, giving talks in the community, and serving as vice president. and treasurer of the organization.
In 1966, an elderly citizen left Smith $1,500 in her estate “for years of loyal service.” He continued to be active in the community and was appointed to Bloomington’s Citizens’ Community Improvement Committee in 1970.
On June 2, 1971, in a letter to the FAA District Office of Illinois, Smith voluntarily relinquished his Pilot Examiner designation certificate, as he did not have a current medical certificate.
Smith died on March 31, 1975, while on his way to St. Joseph’s Hospital. Just before his death, he was playing the organ with other music students at the Unitarian Church at 1613 E. Emerson St. in Bloomington.
He served as Illinois State Director for the International Negro Airmen, an organization dedicated to promoting African American involvement in aviation along with other minorities and had recently been elected chairman of their board. administration.
Smith was a member of St. Mary’s Catholic Church where services were celebrated by Father Alphonse.
Today, the Bloomington-Normal Black History Project continues to collect stories from members of the community, illuminating “hidden” figures in history and preserving their stories for future generations.
Highlights of the Pantagraph Collection at the McLean County Museum of History
Pieces From Our Past is a weekly column from the McLean County Museum of History. Candace Summers is the museum’s Director of Community Education.