A Collection of Knowledge – Harry Smith’s Learning Wall


Tom Doering

Harry Smith’ s Learning Wall on display in the Menchville Library.

Imagine being the only African American in a group of Caucasians on a field trip to Colonial Williamsburg in the fourth grade. Now imagine the first thing you see when you enter the premises is an African American male in a stockade. Harry Smith, who was around ten years old at the time, does not have to imagine. Up until this time, Smith didn’t realize his skin color made him different from the kids he grew up with. It was on this trip he learned about the reality of slavery, and became interested in historical events.

Originally from Columbus, Ohio, Smith’s father was in the Navy, so their family moved around a lot. Smith left high school in his junior year to join the Navy.  After 6 years we began working as a nuclear electronic technician at the shipyard. Smith has also umpired baseball, coached, and owned several businesses, “I’ve done some of everything,” says Smith.

Kylee Baines
Harry Smith and his wife in front of the Learning Wall

Smith has been studying various artifacts for nearly all his life – using them to expand his knowledge of human history. “I have boxes and boxes, notebooks and notebooks of study,” he said.

Smith’s uncle, a very knowledgeable man who studied law,  instilled in Smith a love of books.  Under his influence, Smith became interested in learning how the law has changed throughout time.  Smith visited libraries that contained various books about 18th century law.  As he began to study past law codes, his collection of work grew. He also began collecting documents about African American history. It was his wife who later began to the laminate documents he had collected for safekeeping.

“The collection was not originally meant to be a collection, the collection is just all the stuff gathered through my study,” commented Smith.

With a growing collection and words to share, Smith bought display walls from a yard sale to start displaying his work for others to see. Having traveled, and experienced many different aspects of life through work, Smith, now 56 years old, strives to share what he’s learned over the years with high school students up and down the East Coast.

Smith caters each wall to the age group he is visiting, organizing the display to feature history no longer mentioned in school textbooks.  Smith explained the Learning Wall to the Menchvilles basketball team– hoping to help them gain a better understanding of it.

“The wall for me represents me being able to teach to those who listen.” Smith said.

The wall contains many different factual documents, including cartoons, information about presidents effects on various time periods, and news stories relating to slavery.” My goal when you go to the wall is that you remember one thing,” Smith confessed.

One article on the wall discusses student’s negative reactions towards learning about slavery in Colonial Williamsburg. Student’s, who visit the same spot where Smith’s journey originally began, are exposed to the same reality of the time period – some finding expression in their anger.

These negative emotions, according to Smith, stem from a lack of knowledge. He believes education is the key to understanding the world, and seeing past many of the social issues prevalent in the past, and in today’s society.

“If you’re educated, you’re not as easily triggered,” he said. “The very first sign that shows the Egyptian,  I love that because in our country, history starts in 1607. For Black people in our country, history starts at slavery. This is what really got me going in this time period. Do you see how bright and vivid the colors are?  When you’re dealing with a group of historically oppressed people, taught that they were inferior to another group of people, you’ve got to go past the point of slavery to show them who they were before they got to this place. You have to go back and say ‘Hey, this is who you really were, you were the Pharaohs!’ Remember, whoever wins the war writes the history,” Smith explained. “And it’s not about prejudice, it’s about what’s true and what’s not.”