Dr. Earnest Smith’s distinctions

Rust College Dr. Earnest Smith

Rust College Dr. Earnest Smith

As an administrator, Dr. Smith served with distinction as the head of Rust College, and was instrumental in the construction of three major buildings: the McDonald Science Building, Gross Hall and Wiff Hall residential dormitories for men and women, respectively.

He also was a faithful servant of the church in the position of General Secretary at the General Board of Church Society (GBCS) of the United Methodist Church in Washington, D.C. from 1966-1980.  Dr. Smith retired from the Board of Church and Society in 1978.

His retirement marked more than 40 years of service to the United Methodist Church, the last 12 with GBCS. Even though Dr. Smith retired from a salaried position with the church, he never stopped his active speaking engagements.  In particular, in 1994, addressing the Black Methodists for Church Renewal at their annual meeting in Los Angeles, Dr. Smith created the group’s famous tagline “Our Time Under God Is Now.”

In 1997, Dr. Smith and his wife, Mrs. Milverta Gooden Smith launched at Rust College the Earnest A. and Milverta G. Smith Endowed Lecture Series. In the fall of 2009, they also launched the Earnest A. and Milverta G. Smith Honors Program at Rust College as well.

They wanted to encourage students to be high achievers so that they would advance and explore the world and become tomorrow’s leaders. Additionally, in 1982, Dr. Smith established the Smith—Gooden Educational Trust, a scholarship for his family members who wanted to attend college.

Following retirement from GBCS, Dr. Smith and his wife moved to Memphis, Tennessee where they resided for eleven years before Mrs. Smith decided they should spend their final years in her ancestral home in Benton, Mississippi.  Dr. Smith passed away in November of 2009, and a few weeks before his death, the Smiths had celebrated their 70th wedding anniversary.

The Legacy of Dr. Earnest Smith

Rust College A building
Rust College A building

Rust College A building

Being endowed with an unquenchable thirst for intellectual development and advanced studies, Dr. Smith later enrolled in Oberlin College, a private liberal arts college in Oberlin, Ohio.  According to Dr. Smith, “a man came through who had finished Oberlin and challenged me. I told him that sometimes I have feelings that I should go into the ministry. He asked me how my grades were, and I told him. He said, I’ll write the Dean, and he’ll write you, and you see what you can work out. So it worked out and I went to Oberlin” (Edwards, 1993:174).

Oberlin was esteemed in the African American community for having been the first American institution of higher learning to regularly admit students regardless of race and gender.

Following his coursework at Oberlin, Dr. Smith furthered his education in ministerial leadership at Hartford Seminary Foundation in Hartford, Connecticut. He also took courses at Drew University in New Jersey and Gammon Theological Seminary in Atlanta, Georgia. He received honorary degrees from both Gammon Theological Seminary and Lambuth College in Jackson, Tennessee.

Dr. Smith later served as pastor of three churches. One of these churches was the historic St. Paul Methodist Church, one of the oldest African American churches in San Antonio, Texas.  Dr. Smith stated: “I was in San Antonio, Texas, and the Bishop from New Orleans called me and said when can you come to see me?  I want to talk to you about something” (Edwards, 1993:182).

Dr. Smith further stated, “The Bishop was representing the Board and asked me about assuming the leadership of Rust College” (Edwards, 1993:182).   Dr. Smith initially refused the offer, but after much soul searching, he eventually accepted the offer and in 1957 became the ninth president of Rust College.

Dr. Smith served the college, the Marshall County community, and the state of Mississippi for ten years (1957-1967). He managed to keep the college afloat during those very difficult times. For the college, it was the period in which the denomination was deciding if Rust should continue or be closed.

Also, it was a very turbulent time when the state’s agenda addressed voting rights and public accommodations issues that involved the college, its students, and many young white civil rights workers from the north.

As fate would have it, Dr. Smith took on the challenge and laid the groundwork for the survival of Rust College while at the same time encouraging students to be active in the Civil Rights movement, according to Dr. David Beckley, the current president of Rust College, and a student during the closing years of Dr. Smith’s administration.

By Their Fruits, Ye Shall Know Them: Reverend Dr. Earnest Andrew Smith


Dr. Earnest Smith

Rust College’s motto: “By Their Fruits, Ye Shall Know Them” is most fitting and apropos in relation to Reverend Dr. Earnest Andrew Smith, a stalwart leader in both the educational and religious community of the United Methodist Church.

Even though he came from an impoverished background, Dr. Smith was a renaissance man who had broad intellectual interests and was accomplished in areas of both the arts and the sciences. He was a great intellect, orator, educator, evangelist, father figure and role model for hundreds of Black college students who entered the hallowed halls of Rust College between the years 1957 thru 1967.

Born in Macon, Georgia on August 25, 1913 to Tom and Pauline Smith, Earnest Smith was the middle child of seven brothers and three sisters. In 1920, his family moved to Birmingham, Alabama where he began school. After finishing high school, ten years later, he longed to go to college in order to better himself and to leave Birmingham.

According to Dr. Smith, “I had been out of high school for two years. I wasn’t getting anywhere, and I had no way of getting anywhere. My mother was dead, and my father didn’t understand all of this. He wasn’t against it; he just didn’t understand why. I had to figure it out for myself” (Edwards, 1993:57).

With the assistance of Dr. Lee Marcus McCoy, Dr. Smith entered Rust College in Holly Springs, Mississippi as a freshman and graduated in 1937 with a major in political science.

Dr. Smith stated, “I felt well prepared for college when I arrived. My high school had 2500 kids in just three grades–tenth, eleventh and twelfth. I studied Shakespeare, the poets and so many of the things the kids had never heard of [who came] from one and two teacher schools” (Edwards, 1993:163).

Being endowed with an unquenchable thirst for intellectual development and advanced studies, Dr. Smith later enrolled in Oberlin College, a private liberal arts college in Oberlin, Ohio.  According to Dr. Smith, “a man came through who had finished Oberlin and challenged me. I told him that sometimes I have feelings that I should go into the ministry. He asked me how my grades were, and I told him. He said, I’ll write the Dean, and he’ll write you, and you see what you can work out. So it worked out and I went to Oberlin” (Edwards, 1993:174).

Roy Wilkins & the Rust College Connection


Mr. Roy Wilkins

Rust College has been connected to greatness since the very beginning. People who do not attend Rust have been as equally inspired by the “Rust spirit” of education, service and excellence as those who do. Roy O. Wilkins, a key figure in the NAACP and the American Civil Rights Movement is one of them. Wilkins’ connection to Rust College and Holly Springs is an interesting one.

Roy Wilkins never attended Rust College nor did he grow up in Holly Springs. Nevertheless, Holly Springs is where his family hailed from. Wilkins mentions in his autobiography visiting his grandparents, who lived in Holly Springs in 1914, when he was 13 years old.

Although Wilkins never lived in Holly Springs or attended Rust College, he has had as much influence on the college as anyone living or dead.

According to Wilkins’ The Autobiography of Roy Wilkins Standing Fast (1982), his parents, William (Will) Wilkins and Mayfield (Sweetie) Edmundson met as students at Rust College in the 1800s.

Local lore also has it that his grandfather, Asberry Wilkins, was associated with the college either through his service on the Board of Trustees of the college or through his affiliation with Beverly Chapel Methodist Episcopal Church.

Whatever the connection, something about Rust College appealed to the elder Wilkins. Rust College appealed so much so that he sent his son, William, to be educated here. Rust College therefore was instrumental to Roy Wilkins even before he was born.

Roy Ottoway* Wilkins, was born August 30, 1901 in St. Louis, Missouri. However, following the death of his mother, at the age of 4, Wilkins and his siblings, Armeda and Earl were reared by his maternal aunt, Elizabeth and her husband, Samuel Williams in St. Paul, Minnesota. Both Elizabeth and her husband whom she affectionately referred to as “Sam,” like their parents were also native Mississippians.

While growing up in Minnesota, Wilkins achieved some of his greatest   accomplishments as a civil rights leader.  In 1922, he joined the St. Paul’s branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), graduated from the University of Minnesota (1923), and worked on his first job as a newspaper columnist with the Kansas City Call Newspaper (1923). He later married Aminda (Minne) Badeau in 1929, having by then moved to Kansas City, Missouri.

In 1930, Wilkins was first offered a job by Dr. W. E. B. DuBois with The Crisis, the official magazine of the NAACP. He declined the offer.  However in 1931, Walter Francis White, Acting Secretary of the NAACP offered him a job as Assistant Secretary, and Wilkins accepted his first position with the NAACP.

When W. E. B. Du Bois left the organization in 1934, Wilkins replaced him as editor of The Crisis. While living in New York, Wilkins had such prominent neighbors as Thurgood Marshall, who would later become the first African American justice on the U.S. Supreme Court.

In 1955, Roy Wilkins was selected to be the Executive Secretary of the NAACP and in 1964 became the 3rd Executive Director of the NAACP. During his tenure with the NAACP, Wilkins met many prominent figures who made significant contributions to American history, including eight U.S. Presidents, namely Franklin D. Roosevelt (F.D.R), John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon, and Jimmy Carter and a host of other dignitaries and activists.

Upon his retirement from the NAACP in 1977 at the age of 76, Wilkins was honored with the title Director Emeritus of the NAACP. He later died in New York on September 8, 1981.  His autobiography Standing Fast: The Autobiography of Roy Wilkins was published in 1982 posthumously by his wife, Aminda (Minne) Badeau Wilkins.

Although Roy Wilkins never attended Rust College, the “Rust spirit” of education, service and excellence instilled by his family and his Holly Springs connections no doubt influenced the man he became and his contributions to justice and equality.

Remembering Roy O. Wilkins

“It is not where you are from, but where you are going that matters.” – Charles Williams, Ph.D.

I was listening one day to Rust College’s radio station and heard Reverend Annie Travis, the college chaplain, mention her hometown as a place without any famous people.

Rev. Travis also described attending a social event where a lady asked if she was ashamed of her hometown.  Rev. Travis responded that she was not ashamed of her hometown because it provided everything that she needed, such as love, family, friends, and security.

Rev. Travis did not tell us how the woman responded to her answer. Nevertheless her message was clear. It is not where you are from, but where you are going that makes all the difference. Rev. Travis further reflected on a passage of scripture, John 1:46 (NRSV), about a man named Nathanael and his conversation with Philip, an apostle of Bethsaida.

They were talking about Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph. During the conversation Nathanael asks Philip, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip, in response says to him, “Come and see.”

Both Rev. Travis’ message and Nathanael’s doubts about Jesus being from a small town make me think about Holly Springs, Mississippi. A small-town in the northern part of the state, with a population of approximately 8,000 people, Holly Springs is like Nazareth. Both could easily be overlooked. Yet, just like Nazareth, Holly Springs has a rich history.

In the early 1800’s, according to the civil rights leader Roy Wilkins (1982), Holly Springs was one of the leading centers in Mississippi for selling of enslaved Africans.  It was also the home of his grandfather, Asberry Wilkins.  Asberry Wilkins, like so many other enslaved African Americans in Marshall County, was owned by William and John Wilkins.

In addition to a having a thriving slave market, Holly Springs also played a major role during the Civil War. It served as home to General Ulysses S. Grant and his family during the war.    Holly Springs also served as a supply depot for Grant’s troops.

One of Holly Spring’s greatest claims to fame is being the home of historic Rust College, founded in 1866. Holly Springs is equally as well-known for being home to some of the greatest figures in American history, including civil rights activist Ida B. Wells, Senator Hiram R. Revels, the first African American to be elected to the U.S. Congress, and Edward Hull “Boss” Crump, the legendary mayor of Memphis, Tennessee. Each achieved fame and fortune in their respective fields and started their life’s journeys in Holly Springs, Mississippi.

Holly Springs, Mississippi and Nazareth, where Jesus hailed from are a lot alike. They both prove over and over again that great people often come from humble beginnings and even small towns. Therefore, it is not where you are from, but where you are going that counts!


* This blog was written by Charles Williams, Rust College, 2013

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The Wilkins Smith Institute of Rust College

The Wilkins Smith Institute of Rust College

The Roy Wilkins and Earnest A. Smith Institute for Health Equity & Social Justice (WSIHESJ) at Rust College is a health research center focused on eliminating racial and ethnic health disparities and achieving health equity through community-engaged scholarship, program development and evaluation, and community mobilization in North Mississippi and the Mid-South.

Named in honor of two historic figures, one in civil rights and the other in theology and higher education, WSIHESJ embodies the ideal of achieving social justice through health equity research, policy and practice, practical theology, and higher education.