Smith, Oscar Blake (1902–1973)

By: Ernestine Wheelock

Type: Biography

Published: 1976

Updated: June 1, 1995

Oscar Blake Smith, Baptist clergyman and early leader in the civil-rights movement, was born on January 19, 1902, in Jasper, Arkansas, to Othar Otis and Mamie Nell (Boozer) Smith. He received degrees from Ouachita College, Arkadelphia, Arkansas, in 1925 and from Yale Divinity School in 1929. He was ordained to the ministry of the Baptist Church in 1923 and held his first pastorate in Crossett, Arkansas, 1925–26. He pastored churches in Bridgeport and Rockville, Connecticut; Mexico, Missouri; and Fayetteville and Conway, Arkansas, before taking the pastorate at University Baptist Church, Austin, where he served from 1943 until his retirement in 1969. He was president of Hardin College in Mexico, Missouri, from 1930 to 1932. When he moved to Austin, Smith was offered a "free pulpit," and he used it to crusade on social and moral issues, to minister to the needs of his congregation, and to preach with intellectual integrity. He had a flair for the unusual. In his early days in Austin he wore a morning coat in the pulpit, and later he wore black clerical robes, both unusual for Baptist services. To protest the firing of Homer P. Rainey from the presidency of the University of Texas in 1944, he marched down Guadalupe Street in front of the university as the officiating minister in a student-arranged funeral cortege for the "death" of academic freedom. In a prayer before a hotly contested University of Texas football game in Austin, he reminded the fans that football is, after all, only a game.

Smith was widely known through his weekly radio show, "Religion in Life," which was aired for fourteen years over Radio Station KTBC, Austin. He also prepared and presented several series of television shows. In 1947 he spoke at the International Christian Youth Conference in Oslo, Norway. He presented lectures on more than 100 college campuses and spoke before countless groups and organizations. During World War II and for many years afterward he made preaching missions for the armed forces. In 1952 he spent three months preaching at military bases in England at the request of the chief of chaplains of the United States Air Force. In 1960 he traveled to American bases in Turkey and Crete, and in 1962 he lectured for air force personnel in Central America. The University Baptist Church in Austin, under Smith's leadership, was integrated long before the United States Supreme Court outlawed racial segregation. Smith was described as an honest man whose character reflected the character of God. In addition to numerous articles, he wrote The Gospel for the Bewildered (1946), Religion in Life (1947), These Shared His Coming (1951), and From Doors to Attics (1952). He was president of the Austin Ministers Alliance, president of the Council on Religion at the University of Texas, and chairman of the Austin Human Relations Committee. An oral history on a part of his ministry is in the library at Baylor University. Smith was married to Dora Alberta Riley of Eldorado, Arkansas, on December 15, 1925; they had five sons. He died on June 23, 1973, in Ithaca, New York, while visiting his oldest son, John Lee Smith, director of the social action-religion program at Cornell University. His widow died on September 25, 1974; both were buried at Memorial Park Cemetery in Austin. Smith was a Democrat.

Austin American-Statesman, June 24, July 8, 1973. Vertical Files, Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin. Who's Who in America, 1968–69.
  • Religion
  • Baptist

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Ernestine Wheelock, “Smith, Oscar Blake,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed June 30, 2022,

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

June 1, 1995