Finding Corporal Smith, an 80-year old saga
We have all heard of or seen the film, "Saving Private Ryan." Very few have heard of "Finding Corporal Smith." This totally forgotten search was a real life drama that happened in Brownwood eighty years ago. (Possibly that is why it is `totally forgotten.')
It was springtime in the Valley of the Pecans. A few concerned citizens of Brownwood placed an ad in the March 30, 1920, edition of the Brownwood Bulletin that brought the kind of results everyone who works in advertising is looking for: results! The ad was not for a product, it was not to sell something, but to find a man.
The reason these citizens were concerned was a simple attempt to right a wrong, to see that justice be done. And pooling their money for a newspaper ad was a last resort in their attempts to find Arthur Smith.
It seems the government bureaucracy had neglected to keep up with the facts of Arthur Smith's long overdue pension. For over thirty years this African-American veteran's pension was held up by red tape. There is nothing on earth as consistent as bureaucracies. They consistently find ways to use their expertise in the art of tying things up with red tape.
In 1872 Smith had enlisted in the 10th U.S. Cavalry and spent ten years in the military, mostly serving as a blacksmith.
The strangest part of the story is the mystery about the newspaper ad. Why was such an ad necessary when Arthur Smith had been a blacksmith on Lee Street in Brownwood for more than 20 years, since 1900. Brownwood's downtown area had about as many streets then as it does today. Lee Street was not on the outskirts of town. It was not a side street. Yet the leaders of the community did not seem to know Arthur Smith was a prominent businessman in the heart of the city. `Prominent' and `black man' (negros as they were called then) were seldom found in the same sentence.
Back in those early days of the century the black community and white community lived in radically different worlds, even in small frontier towns like Brownwood. A black man might work for a white man for years and the white man never know the black man's family name. The black man was never referred to as `Mr.' but always by his first name. When the black man finished his work for the day he went home to what many white folks called `the flat.' An area almost entirely made up of black, generally, families.
Arthur Smith had been injured at the close of his military career and was not allowed to re-enlist. After leaving the army it became more and more difficult for him, with his limited education, to comply with the many government requirements for his pension. The red tape for securing the pension finally caused him to give up any hope of ever getting it.
Unknown to Smith, there were some in the white community who had not given up on Corporal Smith's pension. The hero, if there is one, of this story turns out to be a politician. That alone makes it an amazing story. It seems that Congressman Thomas L. Blanton, with local Brownwood help, finally secured Smith's pension, but no one could locate him. Hence somebody thought up the idea of running an ad in the Bulletin.
The very day the ad appeared the old soldier was located at his blacksmith shop on Lee. He was informed he had a federal pension of $20 a month, retroactive to March 4, 1917. So he had a lump sum of $720 coming to him. In 1920 that was a small fortune for most folks, but especially for an aging, black, blacksmith. To better understand what a fortune that was in 1920, $720 would purchase a new car!
Corporal Smith was reported to be thrilled with what Congressman Blanton and his local white friends had done. Though he was now past 75 years of age, and not in the best of health, he was glad to be alive.
If there is any moral to this story it is this: never give up hope. In spite of government red tape, local indifference to minorities, and advancing age, hold on to hope. Someone out there cares. Miracle of miracles, it might even be a politician!. It happened once, eighty years ago.
--- July 7, 2000Previous Menu Next