Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe
In a city obsessed with history, Frank Elmer Smith represents an overlooked chapter.
A veteran of three military conflicts, including the Spanish-American War, Smith was awarded the military’s highest honor, the Medal of Honor, in 1900 . That was in the middle of his career in the US Navy, which spanned the years 1884 to 1914.
But like many African-American veterans of that era, Smith’s service was forgotten upon his return home. Since his death in 1943, he has been buried at Mt. Hope Cemetery in Roslindale, in a grave that offers no indication of his valor.
Sometime in the next few weeks, Smith is poised to receive the hero’s celebration that eluded him in life. The city is planning to name a corner on Harrison Avenue in the South End in his honor. The date of the ceremony hasn’t been set, but city officials say they expect to hold it soon.
Smith stands out not just for his service. He also stands out for his anonymity, which some believe was especially common among black veterans. It raises the question of how many other veterans have gone unrecognized.
“There’s a lot of history out there, and I want young black people to hear it,” said Darryl Miller of the city’s Office of Veterans Services. “I want a young black person to be proud and say hey, that’s some of my ancestors here from Boston. We’ve got something to be proud of.”
Smith was born in Boston in 1864, during the Civil War, and enlisted in the Navy when he was 20. He served in three conflicts — in addition to the Spanish-American War, he took part in campaigns in the Philippines and China.
He was awarded the Medal of Honor for his work in a three-day battle in 1900, though the documents the city has rounded up don’t reveal much in the ways of specifics.
His records, such as they are, do reveal a bit about the life of a black serviceman in the segregated armed forces of the turn of the 20th century. For example, a document describing his physical characteristics — his eyes, hair, and complexion — lists them all as “Negro.” Even though that is obviously not a hair color, or an eye color. When it came to black sailors, specifics seem to have been unimportant.
Near the end of his service, Smith wrote a letter to a commander asking for a promotion from “acting chief water tender” to “chief water tender.” The handwritten, three-page letter hints at the obstacles he faced attempting to advance.
“It has been the height of my ambition to attain the rank of chief water tender and have taken two exams, heretofore, yet could not attain my object — not for lack of ability, but suitability,” he gently declared.
Smith’s appeal was successful: His promotion came through as he was retiring. After he came back to Boston, he worked at Boston City Hospital, in an unknown capacity.
Smith’s history was first discovered by a member of a Boston post of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, who was researching Bostonians who had received the Medal of Honor. After his research on Smith stalled, he turned to the city’s veterans’ office for help, where the case landed in Miller’s lap.
That was the right place. Though Miller’s title is “burial agent” he is a veteran with a keen interest in the history of black veterans. He eventually tracked down Smith’s records — and he even located a surviving granddaughter, Judy Blackwell of Dorchester.
Blackwell told me she doesn’t know a great deal about her grandfather, except that his military service was always a source of family pride. “I’m excited,” she said. “No one’s done anything like this for our family before.”
Frank E. Smith Square will be located near the house on Harrison Avenue where he spent much of his post-military life. More than a century after returning from war, he will finally get a hero’s welcome.
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