Connecting History

Evan Smith ’15 finds connection to his grandfather’s legacy at Randolph.

Evan Smith '15 stands in front of the home of his great-grandfather, Robert Walter Johnson, in the Pierce Street Historic District in Lynchburg.

Evan Smith ’15 stands in front of the home of his great-grandfather, Robert Walter Johnson, in the Pierce Street Historic District in Lynchburg.

Before Althea Gibson and Arthur Ashe took their talents to international competitions like Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, they both trained on a small tennis court located on Pierce Street in Lynchburg.

There, they ran drill after drill with Walter Johnson, an African American doctor who lived next to the court and who was driven to help other members of his own race succeed in a mostly segregated sport.

Today, grass has overtaken that tennis court, and Johnson’s historic home sits vacant. But his legacy of offering opportunities to others lives on in his great-grandson, Evan Smith ’15.

Smith chose to attend Randolph College in part because of his family history in Lynchburg. He sees connections between the College’s mission, his grandfather’s work, and his own future.

“The school was founded on the idea of empowering women, when that was a very odd thing to do at the time,” he said. “My great-grandfather was trying to empower African American boys and girls to play tennis, which had been a traditionally white sport.

“I want to reach out and empower others, too,” he said. “I want to help them have equal footing.”

Smith had a difficult first day of college. He admits to crying in front of Main Hall when his parents drove away. For several weeks, he spent most of his time in his room. Finally, an invitation from a hall mate helped Smith meet a new group of friends.

Bolstered by that positive experience, the Richmond, Virginia, native blossomed. He became more active academically. His circle of friends widened. Later that year, he ran for class president and won.

Experiencing the importance of acceptance firsthand has prompted Smith to make inclusiveness a hallmark of his leadership style. As Student Government president this year, he encourages students to be even more open to others than they already are. “I just want to reach out to other students and let them know that if we work in solidarity on certain issues, we can achieve a lot of our goals.”

A philosophy major, Smith’s open mind and heart also extend to his academic work, said David Schwartz, The Mary Frances Williams Chair in Humanities.

“Evan is an excellent listener who seems genuinely interested in hearing views that conflict with his own,” Schwartz said. “He then takes that rare additional step of considering opposing views with empathy rather than mere disagreement.”

Schwartz recalled that Smith never mentioned that he is Johnson’s descendent until just recently. He was impressed by Smith’s desire and ability to earn his own good reputation. “The fact that he chose to chart his course and make his mark at Randolph on his own, without invoking his familial celebrity in Lynchburg, told me a lot about Evan’s character,” Schwartz said.