William Henry Smith, the son of H. B. Smith, was born on 10 January 1871 in Baltimore, Maryland. As a child, while he showed aptitude for his studies, his academic progress was slowed because he had to help provide for his widowed mother, with whom he resided at 1823 13th Street in Altoona, Pennsylvania. Smith graduated from Altoona High School in 1890. For the next six years he worked in municipal contracting and undertook a series of business ventures. He also kept up his studies privately with the goal of pursuing a higher education. He entered MIT in September 1896 at the age of twenty-five, considerably older than the average freshman.

A student in Course II (mechanical engineering), Smith worked to pay for his tuition, room, and board. He resided at 98 Kendall Street in Boston during his freshman and sophomore years, and at 367 Northampton Street during the fall of 1898, his final semester.[1] Like Robert Taylor (’92), he met Booker T. Washington at some point, probably during one of Washington’s several excursions to the Boston area. Also like Taylor, he was recruited for a post at Tuskegee Institute pending completion of his degree. Washington always kept on the lookout for talented, well-trained blacks able and willing to help him accomplish his educational mission in the South.

But Smith died before he could complete his studies and take up Washington’s offer. On 10 December 1898, midway through his junior year, he was rushed to Boston City Hospital for treatment of appendicitis. Although he was apparently considered out of danger by doctors in attendance, he took a sudden turn for the worse and died on December 18 or 19, at the age of twenty-seven.

Smith’s death came as a shock to his friends and classmates, who eulogized him in the class yearbook. The published account emphasized his qualities of character—racial pride, sense of duty, optimism, and diligence: “The great incentive of his life arose from his meeting Booker T. Washington. Smith had always felt a great desire to aid his race, and when the possibility of a position in the Institute at Tuskegee, Alabama, was presented him as the first colored graduate from the course in Mechanical Engineering at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, his efforts seemed indeed doubled to reach the field toward which he had labored so long. … His death was a great loss to his many friends, but far greater to the race he loved and worked for. It seems a strange stroke of fate which took him away just when his work was really beginning. Smith’s life was such a series of triumphs of character that it is difficult to say just where his great power lay; but, certainly, a Christian at heart, as well as in deed, he made himself felt by his gentle and engaging manners, his indomitable perseverance, and his high and noble ambitions.”[2]

 


[1] MIT Catalogue, 1896-97, 189; 1897-98, 199; 1898-99, 199.

[2] Technique, 1900, 308-09. Other details of Smith’s short life—the difficulties of his early childhood, working his way through school, supporting his widowed mother—are mentioned in this obituary.

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