Black History Month – George Wellington Smith

Photo credit: Collections Canada

Photo credit: Collections Canada

Many Montrealers think of our fair city as a place of openness, tolerance, and inclusion.  However, there was a time in the not-so-distant past when people of colour suffered the consequences of discrimination in ways that we hope to never witness again.  On a cold January morning in 1902, an unfortunate Montreal family learned first hand just how evil racism truly is.

George Wellington Smith worked as a stableman for the Laurin family. By all accounts, he was an industrious and well-known horse trainer of sober character.  On the morning of January 26th, 1902, Mr. Smith was to prepare a horse for Mr. Cyrille Laurin who would be attending 9:00 mass at nearby Gesù church, followed by a visit with Henry Hogan, owner of the upscale St. Lawrence Hall Hotel.

Mr. Smith had the horse harnessed and ready, but for some unknown reason, Eddie Laurin, the 21-year-old son of Mr. Cyrille Laurin, entered the stable and took it upon himself to chastise the stableman for not preparing the horse earlier.  The younger Mr. Laurin had made a habit of verbally assaulting the black employee. On this day, the assault was particularly nasty, culminating in Laurin calling Mr. Smith an “ill-bred ni**er” and ordering him to apologize on his knees. Laurin left the stable shortly thereafter, but soon returned brandishing a revolver.

The rest is, unfortunately, predictable. Eddie Laurin again ordered George Wellington Smith to get down on his knees and apologize. He repeatedly threatened the stableman, and eventually a struggle ensued. In all of the chaos, Laurin fired two shots, one of which struck the unfortunate Mr. Smith in the side. Mr. Smith was rushed to Hotel Dieu Hospital where he succumbed to his injuries at 02:00 on January 27th, 1902, leaving behind his wife and young son.

Fortunately, justice was relatively swift in this case. The criminal trial of Edward Laurin for the murder of George Wellington Smith took place in Montreal in March of 1902, and on April 5th of that same year he was found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to 14 years in federal prison.

Cyrille Laurin was at a loss to explain why his son did what he did. Perhaps his time in South Africa during the Boer War had corrupted him. Perhaps it was something else entirely. At that time, all over North America and throughout the world, racism and intolerance against many different ethnic groups were commonplace. Perhaps he had learned to hate right here in Montreal.

Read more about George Wellington Smith’s story here or here.

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