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Courtesy Library of Congress

Governors of Georgia: Hoke Smith

Governors of Georgia
1. Governors of Oakland: William J. Northen
2. Governors of Oakland: John Brown Gordon
3. Governors of Georgia: Hoke Smith
4. Governors of Georgia: Joseph M. Brown
5. Governors of Georgia: John M. Slaton

Oakland Cemetery is home to many important mayors, celebrities, and public officials. Among these individuals are six governors who today reside inside its hallowed grounds. This blog series will explore these six men: their successes, their failures, and their impact on the people of Georgia.

Hoke Smith was born in North Carolina in 1855. His unusual name, Hoke, was the name of his mother’s family. Sources disagree as to whether his family moved to Atlanta in 1868 or 1872. The young Smith studied law and opened a successful law firm in Atlanta. Another lawyer working in the same building was not as successful and soon left Atlanta to go back to school for political science and history. His name was Woodrow Wilson. Unlike Wilson, Smith found success in his law career. By 1887, Smith had become wealthy enough to purchase a controlling interest in The Atlanta Journal. He turned the fledgling paper into a massive enterprise and remained an owner until 1900.

Smith soon entered the political area as a member of Georgia’s Democratic Party. He called for tariff reform in 1884 and 1888. Using his position at The Atlanta Journal, Smith emerged as the leader of the pro-Grover Cleveland politicians in Georgia. Cleveland lost the 1888 election, but he won the presidency in 1892. Smith played a significant role in Cleveland’s 1892 nomination. In return, President Cleveland appointed Smith as the Secretary of the Interior. Smith was unknown outside of Georgia, but many praised his appointment. Smith was a Southerner who had decried slavery. Neither he nor his father served in the Civil War. Many hoped Smith would represent the reconciliation between the North and South.

Smith’s stance on slavery is best explained in an 1894 article, “Resources and Development of the South,” published in the North American Review. Smith recognized that slavery split the South into a three-class system: the wealthy landowners, the poor white farmers, and the enslaved persons. Smith also felt that, without slavery creating such a class system, “the South… would have been the greatest manufacturing and mining, as well as agricultural, section of the Union.” Smith further explained that he felt many enslaved persons were cordial with their enslavers, and that after Reconstruction, “friction rapidly ceased between the white man and the colored man in the South.” These Lost Cause beliefs, now acknowledged as a myth, were common during this time.

During his time as Secretary of the Interior, Smith reorganized the United States Geological Survey, made efforts in railroad control, and helped convince Congress to authorize an official delegation to the 1895 Cotton States Exposition in Atlanta. He also worked to expand the territory of Native American reservations. Smith was one of the creators of the Dawes Commission, a three-person commission that turned tribally held lands into individual lots and created the legal idea of tribal citizenship. Its legacy remains controversial among tribal governments.

One of the biggest political debates of Smith’s day was the issue of the “gold standard.” Advocates of the gold standard wanted money’s value to be based on a fixed amount of gold. Members of the opposing “free silver” movement wanted the monetary value based on the number of coins in circulation. Smith firmly believed in the gold standard and opposed the Democratic presidential nominee in 1896, free silver advocate William Jennings Bryan. Smith could no longer agree with his party’s decision on this national issue. He decided to resign as Secretary of the Interior and return to Georgia.

Smith ran for governor as a Democrat in 1904. He advocated for political reform and seemed to present himself as an ally to farmers. His views aligned with the Tom Watson-led Populist Party, but the Populist Party was rapidly losing its popularity among voters. Smith never joined. Tom Watson initially supported Smith, but this did not help him win the election. Tom Watson grew to despise Smith, and historian Bertram Wyatt-Brown described Watson’s dislike of Smith as a “mad obsession.”

Smith ran again in 1906 on a platform to disenfranchise African-American voters. Smith fed into rising racial tensions, which exploded into racial violence during the Atlanta Race Massacre in September 1906. Popular with white voters, Smith was elected the next governor of Georgia.

Smith’s largest accomplishment while in office was the reform of the convict lease labor system. Early in its history, the convict lease system used both white and Black prisoners, but it would later be known for disproportionately affecting African Americans. The system is often compared to slavery or referred to as “slavery by another name.” Early in his law career, Smith prosecuted those who abused the convict lease system. Legislation outlawing the system was passed in 1908. However, Smith also managed to pass a “grandfather clause” bill in Georgia, which instituted literacy requirements for voters. Individuals who had voting ancestors prior to 1867 could still vote regardless of literacy. Since Black suffrage took place after 1867 this disenfranchised many African American voters.

Smith ran for a second term in 1908 but lost to Joseph M. Brown, the son of Georgia Governor Joseph Emerson Brown. Smith and Brown had a rematch two years later, and Smith won. During his second term, he established the Georgia Department of Labor and created a sixty-hour-maximum workweek for mill workers.

In 1911, Smith was elected U.S. Senator, but he refused to resign his position as governor of Georgia. Smith held the offices of governor and senator simultaneously for four months, creating a situation known as a “dual mandate.” Many of his political opponents were not happy. Interestingly, a loophole existed in the 1877 State Constitution where governors could serve in Congress (though a governor could not be paid by the federal government).

Smith served in the Senate until 1920. He was a Southern leader in the Senate and supported his former law office neighbor, Woodrow Wilson, during World War I. After the war, however, Smith opposed the League of Nations, a brainchild of the president.

Hoke Smith passed away in 1931 and was buried at Oakland Cemetery on the East Hill. His time in office has been remembered for his reforms. In 1949, historian Dewey Grantham Jr. said that he was an “inspiration to progressives throughout the land.” However, Smith’s reputation as governor has been tainted by his connections to the Atlanta Race Massacre and the disenfranchisement of voters.


Seventeen-year-old Andrew Bramlett is a local historian living in Kennesaw, Georgia. Named the 2023 Honorary City Historian for the City of Kennesaw, he is vice president of the Kennesaw Historical Society, an Honorary Member of the Cemetery Preservation Commission for the City of Kennesaw, and the archivist for the Save Acworth History Foundation. He volunteers with the Kennesaw Parks & Recreation Dept. and volunteers at Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park, where he is a tour guide on the shuttle bus to the top on the weekends. Andrew speaks to civic groups, senior centers, and community groups on a variety of topics ranging from local history to topics that can be used anywhere in the world.

  • Click for Sources


    Aiello, Thomas. 2016. “‘The Shot That Was Heard in Nearly Two Million Negro Homes’: The 1934 Murder of William Alexander Scott.” The Georgia Historical Quarterly 100, no. 4: 366–403.

    Bauman, Mark K. 1998. “Factionalism and Ethnic Politics in Atlanta: The German Jews from the Civil War through the Progressive Era.” The Georgia Historical Quarterly 82, no. 3: 533–58.

    Capeci, Dominic J., and Jack C. Knight. 1996. “Reckoning with Violence: W. E. B. Du Bois and the 1906 Atlanta Race Riot.” The Journal of Southern History 62, no. 4: 727–66.

    Cook, James F. 2005. The Governors of Georgia: 1754 – 2004. Third Edition, Revised and Expanded. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press.

    DeWitt, Petra. 2016. “‘Clear and Present Danger’: The Legacy of the 1917 Espionage Act in the United States.” Historical Reflections / Réflexions Historiques 42, no. 2: 115–33.

    Grantham, Dewey Wesley. 1948. “Hoke Smith: Secretary of the Interior, 1893-1896.” The Georgia Historical Quarterly 32, no. 4: 252–76.

    Grantham, Dewey W. 1949. “Hoke Smith: Progressive Governor of Georgia, 1907-1909.” The Journal of Southern History 15, no. 4: 423–40.

    Harper, Andrew C. 2010. “Conceiving Nature: The Creation of Montana’s Glacier National Park.” Montana: The Magazine of Western History 60, no. 2: 3–94.

    Grantham, Dewey W. 1949. “The Southern Senators and the League of Nations, 1918-1920.” The North Carolina Historical Review 26, no. 2: 187–205.

    Jenkins, C. J. 1877. Constitution of the State of Georgia – 1877. Atlanta, GA: James P. Harrison & Co.

    Korobkin, Russell. 1990. “The Politics of Disfranchisement in Georgia.” The Georgia Historical Quarterly 74, no. 1: 20–58.

    Northen, William J., ed. 1908. Men of Mark in Georgia. Vol. 4. 7 vols. Atlanta, GA: A. B. Caldwell.

    Pinar, William F. 2001. “Black Protest and the Emergence of Ida B. Wells.” Counterpoints 163: 419–86.

    Ready, Milton L. 1968. “Georgia’s Entry into World War I.” The Georgia Historical Quarterly 52, no. 3: 256–64.

    Smith, Hoke. 1894. “The Resources and Development of the South.” The North American Review 159, no. 453: 129–36.

    Vinson, J. Chal. 1952. “Hoke Smith and the ‘Battle of the Standards’ in Georgia, 1895-1896.” The Georgia Historical Quarterly 36, no. 3: 201–19.

    Smith, Zachary. 2012. “Tom Watson and Resistance to Federal War Policies in Georgia during World War I.” The Journal of Southern History 78, no. 2: 293–326.

    Wyatt-Brown, Bertram. 2002. “Tom Watson Revisited.” The Journal of Southern History 68, no. 1: 3–30.

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