Haywood County African American leader Hardin Smith was a slave and Baptist preacher who lived and taught the principle that freedom was acquired through education. He founded churches and schools for freed slaves, and his legacy includes a rich musical heritage for African Americans of Nutbush in Haywood County.
Smith was born in Hanover County, Virginia, in March 1829, one of seven children fathered by Abner Smith, a white slave owner. His mother, Littie, was a slave. Around 1840 Abner Smith sold Littie and her children through the slave pen in St. Louis; all were sold together, shipped, and resold in Memphis. Hardin Smith and his sister Elizabeth were sold to General William H. Loving, a lawyer, minister, and substantial landowner in Haywood County.
In his new home, Smith remembered the words of Virginia slaves, who assured one another: “We’re goin’ to be free, and our children’s goin’ to school.” Ruth Loving, the wife of his new master, and her children secretly taught Smith to read, and he, in turn, secretly taught other slaves.
In 1846, at age sixteen, Smith received permission to minister to a select group of slaves during night services at the white Woodlawn Baptist Church in Nutbush. At the same time, he secretly preached and taught a slave congregation near the Hatchie River in Brownsville.
In 1866, Smith became one of the first African American ministers to receive training from missionaries of the Baptist Home Mission Board of New York City. Smith, the Freedmen’s Bureau, and white residents of the small community of Nutbush founded Woodlawn Colored Baptist Church. Smith became its first minister and remained there for the next fifty-six years.
Smith and members of his congregation founded churches in surrounding communities, including Elam Baptist Church in Nutbush/Durhamville, and Spring Hill Baptist Church; they assisted in the establishment of First Baptist Church in Brownsville. In 1867 Smith and five others founded the first school for freed slaves, the Freedmen’s School of Brownsville, now Carver High School.
Reverend Smith was one of the organizers of Memphis’s Howe Institute of Technology (LeMoyne Owen College), the original National Negro Baptist Convention, and Roger Williams University in Nashville. Before 1900 Woodlawn Colored Baptist Church sent more students to Roger Williams College than did any other community in Tennessee. Out of this student group came some of the leading ministers, teachers, and physicians in the state, including Reverend W. F. Lovelace; J. R. Evans, dean of Roger Williams; and J. W. Evans, M.D., who practiced in Brownsville for forty years.
While still in slavery, Smith brought together black musicians and singers and provided an opportunity for them to perform the spirituals sung in the cotton fields of Nutbush; he continued his musical interests in freedom. A number of musicians and singers emerged from the slave and free congregations of churches founded by Smith, including Sleepy John Estes, the Bootsie Whitelow String Band, gospel recording artist Reverend Clay Evans, singer/actor Meshach Taylor, and performer Tina Turner.
Hardin Smith fathered twenty-two children and died at the age of one hundred.