SMALLWOOD, JAMES MILTON

Henry Franklin Tribe
James Milton Smallwood (1944–2013).
Historian and educator James Smallwood. Courtesy Oklahoma State University Archives.

SMALLWOOD, JAMES MILTON (1944–2013). James Milton Smallwood, historian and educator, son of Elmer Milton and Martha Marguerite (Turner) Smallwood, was born on July 10, 1944, in Terrell, Texas. Natives of Georgia, the Smallwoods were Native Americans. James’s grandmother was a full-blooded Cherokee, and his grandfather was a mixed-blood Cherokee. For generations, the Smallwood clan lived in poverty as sharecroppers in Georgia. The Smallwoods left Georgia during the Great Depression and settled near Terrell where the family worked as sharecroppers and experienced poverty.

As a boy, Jim Smallwood spent considerable time at his grandparents’ home in a rural region northeast of Dallas. From his grandparents, he learned about Indian traditions and to acknowledge and respect the bounties of nature. His grandfather taught the boy about edible plants and how to hunt and fish. An excellent athlete, Smallwood excelled at both football and baseball at Terrell High School. He also learned some disturbing facts about human nature. In East Texas, Smallwood heard the racist views held by many Texans toward African Americans and Native Americans. In his teens, he witnessed the aftermath of an African-American lynching. Although proud of his Cherokee heritage, Smallwood’s parents told their son to deny his Cherokee background in order to avoid trouble. Exposed to the wrongs suffered by African Americans and Native Americans as a child, the experience shaped Smallwood’s views and attitudes as an adult.

After graduating from high school, Smallwood enrolled at Henderson County Community College (now Trinity Valley Community College), where he received his A.A. degree in 1965.  Majoring in history and English as an undergraduate, Smallwood attended East Texas State University (now Texas A&M University-Commerce) and earned two degrees—a B.S. in 1967 and a M.A. in history and political science in 1969. Smallwood’s thesis, “Texas Public Opinion and the Supreme Court Fight of 1937,” was directed by Frank Smyrl. After earning his M.A., Smallwood continued his graduate studies in history at Texas Tech University, where Alwyn Barr, served as his mentor and dissertation director. Smallwood finished his dissertation “Black Texans During Reconstruction, 1865–1874” and received his Ph.D. in 1974.

Smallwood accepted a position as an assistant professor of history at Oklahoma State University (OSU) in 1975. Prior to 1975, he had taught at East Texas State, Southeastern State College (now Southeastern Oklahoma State University), and at Texas Tech. While at OSU, he held the position of director of the Will Rogers Research Project (1975–83). He also served as a visiting professor at Seton Hall University (1987), the University of Texas at Tyler (1989–91), and the University of Kyoto in Japan (1995). Smallwood was active in both the Texas State Historical Association (TSHA) and the East Texas Historical Association (ETHA) and held memberships in many other organization, including the Southern Historical Association, Oklahoma Historical Society, Organization of American Historians, and Southern Conference on Afro-American Studies. He retired as professor of history emeritus at OSU in 2003.

Smallwood, authored, coauthored, and edited more than twenty books during his career. His early works included: A History of the United States From 1865 to the Present (1976), Urban Builder: The Life and Times of Stanley Draper (1977), and An Oklahoma Adventure: Of Banks and Bankers (1979). Although he contributed to a wide range of subjects related to American history, Smallwood’s major focus centered on Texas and the African American struggle in Texas during Reconstruction. He won much praise for Time of Hope, Time of Despair: Black Texans During Reconstruction (1981). In this study, Smallwood rejected earlier historical interpretations of Reconstruction while identifying African American achievements, setbacks, and resistance from whites in post-Civil War Texas. The TSHA awarded Smallwood the Coral Horton Tullis Award for best book on Texas History in 1982. He also authored The Struggle Upward: Blacks in Texas (1983) and The Great Recovery:  The New Deal in Texas (1983). For his work, Smallwood was named a Fellow by the TSHA in 1995 and the ETHA in 2003. 

After retiring from Oklahoma State University, Smallwood relocated to Gainesville, Texas, in 2003. In retirement, he remained active in Texas history. As part of the five-book Texas All series, Texas A&M University Press published Smallwood’s The Indian Texans (2004). Smallwood directed most of his efforts on the African American struggle and the violence and criminal activity in Texas during Reconstruction. With Barry A. Crouch and Larry Peacock, he coauthored Murder and Mayhem: The War of Reconstruction in Texas (2003). Along with Kenneth Howell and Carol Taylor, Smallwood coauthored The Devil’s Triangle: Ben Bickerstaff, Northeast Texans, and the War of Reconstruction in Texas (2007). Smallwood’s The Feud That Wasn’t: The Taylor Ring, Bill Sutton, John Wesley Hardin, and Violence in Texas (2008) earned the author his greatest accolades. For this study, the author received the Ottis Lock Award for Best Book of the Year from the ETHA (2008), the Texas Institute of Letters’s Best Scholarly Book Award (2008), and the Coral Horton Tullis Award (2008) for a second time from the TSHA. The Texas Institute of Letters selected Smallwood as a member in 2008. In discussing his writings with the Gainesville Daily Register in October 2008, Smallwood stated that he was motivated to write because of his love of history and a desire to discover the truth for others.  Smallwood added: “I want people to know I was here and to leave behind a body of historical work.” Most historians would concur that he had succeeded.

At the age of sixty-nine, James Smallwood died in Gainesville on November 25, 2013. Married four times, he was survived by his two sons, James Milton and Steven; his daughter Martha; and son-in law Scott O’Rear. To honor Smallwood’s wishes, his body was cremated and his ashes scattered over an Alabama mountaintop where his daughter and son-in law were married.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: 

Gainesville Daily Register, October 28, 2008. Kenneth Howell, “In Memoriam: James Milton Smallwood,” East Texas Historical Journal 52 (Spring 2014). James M. Smallwood, The Indian Texans (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2004). “Southwestern Collection,” Southwestern Historical Quarterly 117 (April 2014).  

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Handbook of Texas Online, Henry Franklin Tribe, "SMALLWOOD, JAMES MILTON ," accessed February 22, 2019, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/fsmll.

Uploaded on January 22, 2019. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

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