Michael Hoke Smith, governor of Georgia and Secretary of the Interior, was born on September 2, 1855, in Newton, the son of Hildreth Hosea and Mary Brent Hoke Smith. Smith’s father, Hildreth Hosea Smith, had been born in New Hampshire and worked briefly in Washington, D.C., as a lawyer before accepting a professorship in the sciences at Catawba College in 1851. His mother was the sister of Confederate General Robert Hoke, and he was the cousin of renowned surgeon Michael Hoke. In 1857, the elder Smith moved the family to Chapel Hill where he accepted a professorship at the University of North Carolina.
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Hoke Smith studied under his father until 1872 when the family moved to Atlanta. Admitted to the Georgia bar in 1873, Smith began a lucrative law practice in Atlanta. Smith specialized in workers compensation and three-quarters of the cases that he took involved personal injury on the job. Fourteen years later he purchased a controlling interest in the Atlanta Journal, which he promptly utilized to advance his political future.
In 1892, President Grover Cleveland appointed Smith Secretary of the Interior, a post he held until 1896. In the early 1900s he allied himself with Tom Watson, formerly the vice-presidential candidate for the Populist ticket and one of Georgia’s most powerful politicians. Under Watson’s tutelage, Smith won the governorship of Georgia in 1907. As governor he declared the African-American vote “ignorant and purchaseable” and instated several Jim Crow laws requiring literacy tests and property ownership for black voting. Smith held the post until 1909 when he was defeated for reelection.
Reelected governor in 1911, Smith had just entered office when he was called upon to fill the United States Senate seat of Alexander S. Clay who had died. Smith won reelection in 1914 to the seat, but was defeated in 1920 by his former ally Tom Watson. Smith’s Congressional service was marked by his opposition to Prohibition and woman suffrage, as well as his resistance to American participation in World War I. It was his opposition to entering the war that led to his political downfall.
Smith remained in Washington, D.C., until 1925, having opened a law practice after his congressional defeat. He returned to Atlanta the following year, where he died on November 27, 1931. He is buried in Oakwood Cemetery in Atlanta.
Dewey W. Grantham, Jr., Hoke Smith and the Politics of the Deep South (1958)
John C. Vinson, “Hoke Smith,” in Horace Montgomery, ed., Georgians in Profile (1958)
Biographical Dictionary of the American Congress (1971)
William S. Powell, ed., Dictionary of North Carolina Biography, V, 383-384-sketch by Richard N. Sheldon
Hoke Smith in 1912
Photo from Library of Congress.