Athlete, civil rights activist elected to local hall of fame

Honing his skills with a volleyball and a hoop made from a tricycle wheel nailed to his house, Billy Smith didn't know how good a basketball player he was until he reached high school.

Having grown to a lanky 6 feet 5 inches, with a set of hands that could suffocate a basketball, Smith found out just how good he could be when he realized he could "shoot the one-hander from anywhere on the court."

In the 1950s, Smith became a legend at Logan High School, then Concord's high school for African American students. He became an all-conference player at N.C. A&T State University, where he's enshrined in the athletic hall of fame.

This month, Smith became the first person inducted in the Logan Shankletown Schools Association's Hall of Fame, an elite club that eventually will also honor people from disciplines beyond sports.

The association was formed in 1989 with the purpose of maintaining the legacy of Logan High School and Shankletown Elementary School, an all-black school in the Concord neighborhood of the same name. Association president Amos McClorey said the association has a registry of more than 900 people who attended the schools before they shut down in 1968.

The association holds a "grand reunion" every three years, and the steering committee voted to create a hall of fame for this year's reunion. Formerly the Handy Center soda shop, the association's community building is in Concord's Logan neighborhood.

That building is less than a mile away from where the Logan Recreation Center stands today, a building that was converted from Logan High. The school's original gym burned down in the mid-1970s (although the way Smith used to scorch the basketball nets had nothing to do with that).

Smith has some fond memories of his playing days for coaches Jesse Banner and Eugene Galloway at Logan High and for coach Cal Irvin at N.C. A&T.

He remembers scoring 55 points in the first half in one game for Logan and the coach benching him the rest of the game. Then there was the 45-point game against Charlotte's Second Ward High in a Christmas tournament, which earned him the tourney's MVP award even though Logan placed third.

"And the three-ball wasn't there," said Smith, grinning at the thought of how many points he could have scored if the three-point arc had been part of the game then.

Smith said he was recruited by all the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association schools, including N.C. A&T, which was part of the league at the time. Twice he was named all-conference, but he almost didn't play in his first game as a freshman.

He was benched for most of the game; he had missed a curfew because he was visiting the girl he was dating in Concord. They exchanged vows while he was in college, and Billy and Letha Smith have now been married 55 years.

While at A&T, Smith made history of another kind. Though he said he was not a major part of the event, Smith appears in an iconic photograph of four A&T students participating in a civil rights sit-in at a Greensboro Woolworth's store in February 1960.

In the early 1960s, Smith returned to Concord, where he worked for a chemical company and as a cook at Lake Lynn Lodge. He retired in 1996 and spent his time being active at Grace Lutheran Church in Concord.

Smith was notified of his election to the association's hall of fame in April. He was enshrined at the grand reunion July 2 at the Hilton Garden Inn. A plaque with his name will be on display at the association's community building.

"That's a great honor," Smith said. "There were a lot of great athletes before me and after me. It's sort of unique."