It's hard to imagine a finer representative for Fort Smith than its current mayor, George McGill.
It's not just because, when he talks about how much he loves his city, he's so enthusiastic that it reminds his audience that he comes from preacher stock. Both his father and grandfather were Baptist ministers, and when McGill gets going on Fort Smith and all of its assets, his cadence takes on the eloquence and poetry of a Sunday sermon.
Fort Smith through George McGill’s Eyes
“Those that do the due diligence are discovering that this is going to be the place to be in the future,” says George McGill. “Interstate 49 runs north and south, Interstate 40 runs east and west, and they intersect at Fort Smith, Arkansas. Our medical school had 162 slots available in our second class and around 4000 students from around the country and the world applied to get into the School of Osteopathic Medicine in Fort Smith. Some of the brightest students in the country are getting their training here in Fort Smith, Arkansas. We tend to forget that we’re part of America’s security force — we house the 188th Wing. The Secretary of the Air Force said, ‘If you want to see and understand the future of the U.S. Air Force, you need to go to Fort Smith.’ That’s a profound statement. There are a lot of great things happening in our downtown area — it’s starting to make a name for itself. Our Riverfront is developing. We have a skate park and a bicycle park that is first class. We have an amphitheater down there where we have live music, and we’ve built one of the most beautiful trails along the Arkansas River. We just passed a millage to support our schools, so everybody across the city is excited about that. We’re working hard to attract increased pay jobs and a great arts scene that has become internationally known with our Unexpected public art project.
“We’ve got our eye on the ball — if we don’t get weary of doing what is right, and we keep pushing ahead, doing what’s right, we’re going to find ourselves exactly where we want to be, and it’s going to be a cool place to live, I promise you.”
"We can circle the wagons here," he says of his vision for his city. "Then we tie this place together, and we braid it real good with our caring for one another, our hope in our city, our vision in our city, how we embrace our young people, how we protect and care for our elderly and how we educate our children. We can make this one of the greatest places you'd ever want to live. We may not have the biggest Taco Bell stand, but, by gosh, we wave at each other, we say 'Good Morning,' and we all go to the kiddie ball games together, and we root for all of the children. We root for all the children. And I get a chance to be the No. 1 cheerleader, the chief ambassador, and I wave the pom poms for Fort Smith.
"My task here today is to help someone else catch that spirit of pride in this city."
So, yes, McGill can and will speak at length about the myriad factors that, he says, make Fort Smith one of the best places to live in the state.
But what makes McGill's election to the highest city office so extraordinary is where he started. McGill was born and raised in Fort Smith, a part of a small, tight-knit African-American community on, he says, the "poor side" of town.
Growing up, most of the public accommodations in the same city that elected him mayor last fall -- by a wide margin -- were closed to him.
"Can you imagine not being able to walk in the front door of a restaurant?" he asks. "Can you imagine not being able to go and bowl a couple of games? Can you imagine that those things were available, but they were not available to you simply because of your skin color? That's the world I lived in until I was 17."
A legacy of service
Even though McGill had already been elected a state representative by the time he was elected mayor, had rubbed elbows with former presidents and was named to Hillary Clinton's Leadership Council during the 2016 presidential race, the results of his most recent campaign seem to have taken his breath away.
"The thought of it was unbelievable when I was first approached," he says. "And the people that were asking me -- not a one of them looked like me. Fort Smith has been around over 200 years, and I would be the first African-American to ever run. I thought, 'This is really too much. From where I came from, from a time where I had to ride on the back of the bus, to a time when they asked me to be mayor of the second largest city in the state. What a humbling experience that was."
McGill was an ideal candidate for the position. He was successful in the corporate sector and as a small business owner, and he had served honorably as a state representative. His deep ancestral roots in the city, however, were probably the most emotionally compelling factor of his candidacy. McGill's great-grandfather was a soldier in the Civil War, fighting in Mississippi when he found out the war had ended. He headed east and landed in Fort Smith -- a puzzle to McGill, who wonders why he did not head up north -- and started a family.
"My grandfather and my great-grandfather and my dad, they could prepare things, fix things, they were gardeners, they were chefs, they were barbers," says McGill. "They were skilled in doing things with their hands, which meant that they had more than the average African-American, because they could always get a job, and they were paid according to their skill level."
McGill's grandfather, Monroe, was a minister. His father would follow in those footsteps.
"Through the ministry is really where our family legacy begins," he notes. "My dad, at one point, had the largest African-American church in this whole region -- King Solomon Missionary Baptist Church. The original structure still stands today. The congregation is over 100 years old."
McGill's mother, Elizabeth, was the first African-American social worker in Fort Smith. McGill grew up watching his parents work toward a better life for their community members.
"They were activists, and they were constantly pushing for the rights of people in our community," he says. "Things we often take for granted now. They fought to make sure, when telephone service was brought here, it was brought to our community, as well. My mother was a big advocate in the courts in Fort Smith. She was a big advocate for children and families and abused women, and we're talking 1958, 1959. She had a passion for those in need."
Elizabeth McGill set up a distribution site for the Commodity Supplemental Food Program and worked to ensure that people in her community who needed food would get it. Eventually, she would create a community center to help assist senior citizens, the Elizabeth McGill Drop-In Center, where McGill currently serves as an adviser.
"There were community centers and senior citizen centers [when she established the Drop-In Center], but, during those times, they were segregated," says McGill. "So my mom started one for African-American seniors, and it's still in operation today down on Sixth Street. Every month, we distribute food to well over 100 families in the community, and I still make myself available to seniors who may have questions about things -- about a will or about a deed or about insurance. They may not have family or anyone nearby and oftentimes, they don't have resources to contact legal people, so I act as a resource. That way, we make sure seniors don't get mistreated."
Learning to learn
Education was always a priority in the McGill household. McGill attended the one-room Dunbar Elementary School, which housed grades one through three in one room, fourth through sixth in a second room.
"[The teacher] would have two rows of first graders, two rows of second graders and two rows of third graders," remembers McGill. "She would teach the first graders and give them an assignment and step right over to the second graders and give them an assignment and step over to the third graders. By the time I reached the third grade, I knew the stuff because I had heard it for three years! Believe it or not, all of those kids that came out of that little school excelled in college and excelled in life."
Equally as impressive was the education he received later at Lincoln High School. The only public high school for African-Americans in the area, Lincoln drew students from neighboring towns, some coming from so far away that they had to board with Fort Smith families in order to receive a public education. The segregated public school system often starved African-American schools for resources, contributing much less funding to those schools than went to their all-white counterparts. Despite this, the educators and administrators at Lincoln High School heroically found a way to offer their students a first-class education.
"I wish all high schools had a culture like we did," says McGill. "The whole culture was centered on excellence. At the end of the day, everyone was striving to be the very best we could be. Our high school choir was one of the best in the South, our debate team was excellent, our theater groups were excellent. That was the call: 'Be the best.' The expectations were high, and those expectations permeated the classrooms."
McGill was so impressed by the teachers he encountered during primary and secondary school, he considered becoming an educator himself, eventually receiving a degree in elementary education.
"The people that influenced me the most were teachers," he says. "I fell in love with my teachers, because we couldn't hoodwink them. They were focused on making sure that when we left them, we were thoroughly prepared for the next grade level. When I went to the University of Arkansas, I didn't have to take remedial anything."
That McGill would be able to attend the University of Arkansas at all was in doubt until the summer after he graduated from high school, when the Civil Rights Act was passed. The landmark legislation meant that no one in Fort Smith -- or anywhere else -- would be able to lock their doors to McGill simply because of the color of his skin.
"The Civil Rights Act was passed in July ," says McGill. "I had just graduated from high school. Some friends and I were anxiously waiting. We knew that it was going to be signed, and we knew what that meant for us. It meant, 'Now, I am a full citizen of the United States of America. I can go to any public place that I desire.' My friend and I said, 'We're going to integrate something today. We're going to do it today.' The place we had always wanted to go was a place called Midland Bowling Alley. Still there today, out on Kelly Highway, and it was in walking distance of where we lived. We headed out to Midland Bowl, and I never will forget the experience: 'We're going to go in and exercise our full rights as Americans.'
"We go in, anticipating some reluctance, and we go to the counter, and we encounter one of the nicest men I've ever met. He said, 'Well, good afternoon, guys, how can I help you?' I said, 'I would like to bowl.' He said, 'What size shoes do you wear?' And he got our shoes, and he said, 'You guys have a great time.' Complete opposite of what we were expecting. Because not very many were satisfied with the fact that they had to now open the doors. It took establishments and entities and organizations a while to get adjusted to that matter."
'A training ground'
Take the University of Arkansas as an example: Though the university had admitted African-American students prior to 1964 -- notably, Silas Hunt to the School of Law in 1948 -- those students were segregated on campus and forced to use makeshift classrooms. (Hunt's classes were held in the basement.) In 1964, despite the passing of the Civil Rights Act, McGill and the other African-American students who started school that fall were still prohibited from living in the dormitories on campus.
"I lived off campus, over on Willow Street in an African-American enclave, right down the hill from the old courthouse," he says. "People from the neighborhood would rent us a room, and we would stay with the family. My second semester, the dorms opened, but I never stayed on campus. I enjoyed being off campus in the community with people. We went to church with them, and we became part of that community. Yes, we were students from around the state, but we assimilated into that African-American community there in Fayetteville -- some of the finest, kindest people. They took care of us. They were our mother figures, our father figures, while we were away from home. You could always count on someone to provide food or whatever we needed."
You'll find no bitterness in McGill's recounting of his college days. In the tumultuous years in the South following the passage of the Civil Rights Act, there is every possibility that McGill and his fellow African-American students faced resistance on campus that was blatantly hostile, but he doesn't like to dwell on the specifics. In fact, his description of his years on the University of Arkansas campus brings to mind the photos of the faces of the young students integrating Little Rock's Central High School in 1957 -- crowds surrounding them, hurling slurs and invective and threats of violence, yet their faces showed only courage, dignity and stoicism. So it is with McGill's words.
"When I went [to the university], there were less than 20 African-Americans on campus in a student population of about thirteen or fourteen thousand, so we were a very close knit group," he says. "Some of the best friendships I have today are some of the people I met when we were on that campus. Our focus was on getting an education and completing our coursework. We all sort of made a pact: No matter what, we were going to get our degree from this place. 'Nothing is going to happen that will make me leave: Not poor grades, not professors' attitudes, not racism on campus. None of that is going to drive me away. We are going to graduate from this university.' And almost all of us did and have become very successful out here. I would imagine that experience really sharpened and honed us to deal with life. I know it did for me. We were ready for corporate America and the things that corporate America would throw at us simply because of the color of our skin.
"It was a training ground for things to come."
McGill says he returns to the university every two years for the Black Alumni reunions.
"Time has a way of healing, if you're interested in being healed," he says. "Most of my classmates, we've set aside all of that old, painful baggage that we used to carry from the university, and we realize that times have changed, and the university has changed, and we have changed."
Following graduation, McGill headed off for a stint in the Army, returning afterwards to Arkansas to earn his MBA. Years later, he received a plaque and official notice from the University of Arkansas that he was the first African-American to earn an MBA degree from that institution.
Putting down roots
Young, dynamic and eager to make his mark on the world, McGill thought he would leave Arkansas, striking out for an urban environment on the East or West Coast, but he couldn't help but notice that his parents were growing older, needing more assistance with each passing day. True to his nature, he realized he couldn't leave when he sensed he was needed at home.
"So, I stayed and I stayed and I stayed, and, before long, I began to put roots down, and I ended up staying here at home," he says. "I'm awfully glad that I did."
After working in a corporate job for a while -- "learning the ropes", he says -- McGill started his own company. He would operate and run McGill Insurance Agency for 30 years before retiring. Three years later, he was approached about serving in the legislature, which he did for three terms. And despite the success he had found in the corporate and small business sector, as well as in state politics, he was still amazed and humbled to be asked to run for mayor.
"We always said, 'In God We Trust', that's the core of the culture I come out of, so I began to think: "What would I get out of this?'" he says. "I decided that we would get an opportunity to show a lot of people what kindness looks like. What it sounds like. You get a chance to show children what it means to sometimes just listen to others and not be judgmental, to hear what they have to say. You get a chance to show the senior citizens what real compassion is. You can communicate with the small business owners, being a small business owner yourself. You know what it's like to tighten your belt -- I didn't say tighten someone else's belt -- to make a personal sacrifice to stay afloat. I understood working in corporate America.
"[Today,] we find ourselves being broken down into groups of people who just don't believe in what this country was founded on. And so my goal is to make sure that we stay tied true to our beliefs, stay tied to the Constitution that talks about inalienable rights and earn the trust to the extent that we are making our city what we want it to be. And get people to understand that we are still living in the greatest country on the planet, in spite of those things that are creeping into our fabric that separate us, reduce our psyche to the extent that we can say ugly things to one another."
It seems that much of Fort Smith is as excited at the prospect of a Mayor George McGill as McGill is: His inauguration ceremony started late as hundreds of his constituents moved slowly through security. The crowd filled the third-floor courtroom where the event was held, as well as a first-floor overflow room and the lobby.
"To me, [Fort Smith] is one of the finest places in the world to live," says McGill. "Someone that looks like me, treated with the decency and respect that I always dreamed of, and the evidence of that is they elected me the mayor. Nobody appointed me. The citizens of the city, in a landslide, said, 'We want this guy to represent us. We want George McGill to do this, because we know him, we knew his family, we know his legacy. We know the culture he comes out of. We know him. And he has a history of service.
"The key is not getting exhausted doing the things you know are right."
NAN Profiles on 02/17/2019
Print Headline: George McGill