Our Arklahoma Heritage: Fort Smith native Luther Gilyard spent four years in historic Negro League
The historic African American Washington Cemetery off Kelley Highway in north Fort Smith is the final resting place for the remains of numerous late 19th century black families from the area, including at least two mean who fathered sons who went on to play in the equally historic Negro Baseball League.
One of those men, Neal Henderson, fathered Bobo Henderson, who played four years in the NBL including two years with the Kansas City Monarchs in 1950-51.
We have written about Henderson in the past but we recently discovered a second Negro league player who was born in Fort Smith in 1910, spent parts of four seasons playing in St. Louis, Chicago and Birmingham and whose father is also buried in Washington Cemetery.
Pre-WWI Fort Smith was still a highly segregated town in 1910.
As far back as 1868, state-mandated school segregation in Arkansas occurred with the passage of Act 52 and other aspects of daily life followed similar lines for the better part of the next ninety-years.
People of color in Fort Smith for the most part were two generations removed from slavery during the civil war and the last public lynching inside the city limits was still two years away when a mob lynched Sanford Lewis on Garrison Avenue,
One generation removed from the horrors of slavery, Luther Gilyard Sr. and Pearl (White) Gilyard were atypical of the black population in Fort Smith at the time. Both had been born and raised in the city and some records indicate they may have worked in the service industries of Fort Smith as they started and raised their family.
Luther Sr. had been born in 1880. At the age of 29, a son was born to him and Pearl who they named Luther Jr.. Very little is known about the early life of Luther Jr. and little is known of his athletic endeavors in his early years.
But historical records show Luther "Little Socks" Gilyard played first base and some outfield for the semi-pro Goldman Hotel Grays, a team sponsored by--and supposedly consisting of employees of the hotel--by the time he was in his mid-20's.
Ironically, another man played on that team whose name still resonates in Fort Smith. Louis "Teddy " McGill went on to become pastor of King Solomon Missionary Baptist Church for 43 years.
He is also buried in the Washington Cemetery and his son, George, is the current mayor of Fort Smith.
Luther apparently had enough athletic prowess to draw the attention of scouts of the well-established Negro leagues, which by then was halfway through their second decade of existence. He started his professional career as a member of the St. Louis Stars in 1937, where he was the starting first baseman.
Halfway through that first season, the Stars moved north and became the Chicago American Giants, which is where Luther spent the next two seasons before being called to military service in WWII for a few years before returning stateside
In 1942, Luther played his final season for the Birmingham Black Barons, regaining his starting role at 1st base. On that team he had a couple of notable teammates. including Lyman Bostock Sr., the father of the future Major Leaguer of the same name who was shot and killed during his fourth season in the big leagues.
Another player on that 1942 Black Baron team that would go onto even greater fame, albeit in a different sport, was El Dorado born Reece "Goose" Tatum of later Harlem Globetrotter fame.
In his career, Gilyard finished with a very respectable .249 batting average, including hitting at a .274 pace in his first year at St. Louis/Chicago. He scored thirty-four runs on sixty-four hits in 261 plate appearances.
Gilyard migrated north for good long after his playing career ended and died at the age of 66 in September, 1976 in Detroit. Michigan.
One final Gilyard note: the 1973 Fort Smith Northside Grizzly undefeated (30-0) Arkansas state championship basketball team is best known for later Razorback and NBA standout Ron Brewer.
But another excellent player on that squad, a son of the subject of this story, helped the Bears win the state crown against Conway in the spring of 1974.
His name...Luther Gilyard.