Ernest Ollington Smith, educator and civic leader, was born on July 4, 1885, in Selma, Alabama, to William Dudley Smith and Isabella (Glosscock) Smith. Both parents were dedicated to education. Smith’s father, a carpenter, joined ex-slave artisans from all over the South who went to Nashville to help build Fisk University after the Civil War. Smith’s father built the spiral staircase in Jubilee Hall.
In 1904 E. O. Smith was hired as a principal of a school in Goliad, Texas, not long after graduating with a B.A. from Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. He moved to Houston a year later and became a pioneer in numerous efforts toward equality. Smith married Nina Erwin on June 14, 1906, in Davidson, Tennessee, and the couple later became the parents of three sons and one daughter. In 1906 Smith went to check out a book at the Houston Public Library and was refused the privilege because of his race. Seven years later, Smith stood among the jubilant crowd at the grand opening of the Colored Carnegie Library in downtown Houston as chairman of the Colored Library Association. The only other libraries available to his race in the state of Texas were on the campuses of African-American colleges.
After moving to Houston, Smith became principal of Hollywood Elementary School. He was later hired as principal of Booker T. Washington Elementary (later renamed Richard Brock Elementary), Blanche Kelso Bruce Night School, and Frances Harper Junior High.
In 1927 when Phillis Wheatley High School, Houston’s third high school for African Americans, opened in the Fifth Ward community, E. O. Smith (known by everyone as “Professor Smith”) was hired as principal. Within ten years Wheatley High School had 2,600 students and sixty teachers. Smith encouraged some thirty extracurricular activities for students such as athletics, music, auto mechanics, and home economics because he wanted students prepared for life experiences and to have job skills.
Smith’s other community service in Houston included serving as cofounder of Pilgrim Congregational Church, cofounder of the Fisk University Alumni Association, and member of the Civic Betterment League, forerunner of Houston’s NAACP. He was also cofounder and first president of the Houston graduate chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, a national fraternity for blacks. He was a member of the Teachers State Association of Texas.
One of his most unique affiliations was with the International Longshoreman’s Association. When Smith first moved to Houston, he worked as a longshoreman during the summer to augment his teacher’s salary. After Local 872 was organized in Houston in 1913 he was selected as secretary and wrote the first charter which became the model for other charters in the state for both white and black unions.
Thousands of students benefited from E. O. Smith’s leadership, and many followed his footsteps and became educators. Others became longshoremen, business owners, legislators, musicians, artisans, athletes, and pursued every career imaginable. The E. O. Smith Junior High School, located in the Fifth Ward community of Houston, was named in his honor in 1950. By 2011 the school, then known as the E. O. Smith Education Center, became an all-male college preparatory school.
E.O. Smith died from an enlarged heart on October 13, 1945, while working in his front yard. More than 600 people packed Pilgrim Congregational Church to attend his funeral. Smith was buried in Houston’s Oak Park Cemetery, now Golden Gate Cemetery.