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New African-American museum benefits from lawyer’s obsession with sports

Jock Michael Smith assembled a huge collection of memorabilia

When trial lawyer Jock Michael Smith died in January 2012, his daughter Janay found herself with the keys to an offsite storage unit filled with more than 10,000 pieces of sports memorabilia. Her father had spent nearly 30 years filling it with things ranging from Muhammad Ali’s ring to two of Satchel Paige’s jerseys.

More than 40 items from Smith’s huge collection are now housed at the new National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., which opened to the public on Saturday.

Smith, who died at the age of 63, had a wide-ranging and lucrative law career, doing everything from local government work to handling the estates of civil rights figures to sports management. In the late ’90s, he was one of the founding partners of a national law firm with well-known litigator Johnnie Cochran.

He was also a die-hard New York sports fan.

“The Jets and the Giants, the Mets and the Yankees … It doesn’t matter. If you’re New York, he’s with you,” said Janay Smith. “If you’re not New York, you’re the anti-Christ. He was really adamant about it.”

Smith started collecting in 1984 with a $5 gift from his wife, Yvette. It was small bust of baseball’s home run king Hank Aaron.

“I guess about half a foot tall, plastic, colored, painted brown bronze. My mother saw it in the window of a little curio shop in Montgomery, Alabama,” Janay Smith said.

The gift sparked his curiosity and he developed a knack for finding items.

Janay Smith at the Edgar Bar on September16, 2016 in Washington D.C. Janay Smith has many of her father's, Jock Michael Smith, sports memorabilia in the new National Museum of African American History and Culture underneath a collection featuring his name.

Janay Smith at the Edgar Bar on September16, 2016 in Washington D.C. Janay Smith has many of her father’s, Jock Michael Smith, sports memorabilia in the new National Museum of African American History and Culture underneath a collection featuring his name.

Brent Lewis/ The Undefeated

“He collected every piece himself. He didn’t have a team just go out and try to find the ’57 Browns’ [jerseys],” she said. “He decided on each piece. He negotiated each deal. He called and begged and stood outside of baseball parks and football stadiums when you could still do that and he stood out there — my dad and bunch of 12-year-olds, waiting for somebody’s autograph.

“My dad couldn’t tell you where his keys were in the morning to go to his car, but he could tell you Jackie Robinson’s numbers for his rookie year,” Janay Smith said. “His memory for numbers and figures related to sports was crazy. He could tell you when somebody got traded. I mean in any sport: baseball, football, or basketball.”

The collection spanned sports from boxing to baseball, from college to pros and across the decades. The 44 items in the museum’s collection include donated pieces as well as memorabilia that is on loan for 10 years. Among the donated items are: Doug Williams’ Grambling State jersey, Jim Brown’s 1957 MVP Trophy, Edwin Moses’ track suit from the 1987 World Championships, Mike Tyson’s boxing trunks, Bob Beamon’s UTEP track singlet, Walter Payton’s helmet and Jerry Rice’s helmet. The items on loan include Satchel Paige’s Cleveland Indians jersey, Jackie Robinson’s Brooklyn Dodgers jersey and bat, Joe Louis’ boxing gloves, Julius Erving’s 1983 NBA Championship ring and Bill Russell’s Boston Celtics jersey.

Cleats worn by Jesse Owens during the 1936 Olympics in Germany that came from the Jock Michael Smith Collection.

Cleats worn by Jesse Owens during the 1936 Olympics in Germany that came from the Jock Michael Smith Collection.

Jerry Bembry/The Undefeated

Damion Thomas, the sports curator at the museum, said, “One of the most amazing parts of my job is working with people like Janay Smith, whose family has demonstrated a commitment to preserving aspects of our history. It is an honor to be entrusted with displaying, preserving, and sharing with the world what these objects reveal about African-American history and American society.”

Jock Smith’s father, Jacob, was a highly sought-after civil rights lawyer and political leader in New York City, representing clients such as Count Basie and the NAACP. He took on a divorce case for a friend and was shot to death by the friend’s husband. His son was only 8 years old.

It was a hard blow for the boy. But he went on to graduate from Tuskegee University in 1970 and earned a law degree in 1973 from Notre Dame, where he founded the Black American Law Students Association chapter.

After briefly working for the NAACP in New York state, he moved to Alabama. He worked as an assistant attorney general for the state and later opened a solo practice in Tuskegee. Over the course of his career, he was a municipal judge, a county attorney and a state administrative judge. Smith also represented the estates of Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr., many players from the Negro Leagues and civil rights leader Fred Shuttlesworth.

“My dad was a sports fanatic,” Janay Smith said. “He was also a justice-under-the-law fanatic. You put those two together and it’s a pretty powerful combination.

“He was very charismatic, which is why he was a very good trial lawyer. You put him in front of a jury, you were pretty much going to lose.”

In 1996, Smith linked up with Cochran.

“My dad met Johnny Cochran after the O.J. trial, when he was doing his book tour. He was coming to do a book signing in Montgomery, Alabama. The promoter asked my dad to be his personal transportation,” Janay Smith said. “Montgomery is a small town. They wanted to make sure not only was the person timely, but they could have something in common with Mr. Cochran.”

Jock Smith fit the bill. The two developed a lasting friendship over the course of six hours.

“When it was over, my dad drove him from Montgomery to Atlanta to the airport. Somewhere in there they decided this is the life.”

The pair formed Cochran Sports Management, a sports firm that represented professional athletes in contract negotiations. The partnership led to the founding of the national law firm of Cochran, Cherry, Givens and Smith in 1998.

According to The Cochran Firm’s website, Smith’s verdicts and settlements included an $80 million judgment against Orkin Pest Control for an elderly black woman whose house was destroyed by termites after she was defrauded by the company; a $700 million settlement in a large environmental case against Monsanto, Pharmacia and Solutia Inc.; and a $1.6 billion verdict against Southwestern Life Insurance for a mother of three who was a victim of fraud, which the firm claims is the largest civil verdict ever won by an African-American lawyer.

Smith had used his memorabilia collection to try to inspire and motivate teens and young adults to overcome life’s challenges by using the real-life stories of sports legends. Following Smith’s death, his daughter began to slowly evaluate every piece he’d obtained. After photographing and cataloging the items, she decided to find a place to showcase his passion.

“I didn’t even know anybody at the Smithsonian,” she said. “I didn’t even know the Smithsonian was about to open this museum, but what I knew was that I had to find somebody who was an expert in the world of exhibiting.”

Janay Smith continues her father’s legacy by traveling around the United States showcasing her father’s collection and giving motivational talks at churches, schools, universities and political events. The museum allows her to expose the collection to a larger audience.

“I’m extraordinarily pleased, beyond belief,” she said. “Damion Thomas, the curator of the sports gallery, has been a man of his word, a man of integrity. Everything I requested, he has either handled explicitly according to my requests, or very definitely explained to me why he couldn’t. That is all I can ask for in this world.

“It’s huge. It’s an honor. Since I’ve been on this mission, it’s taken around five years of working with the Smithsonian for this to come to fruition.”

Kelley Evans is a digital producer at Andscape. She is a food passionista, helicopter mom and an unapologetic Southerner who spends every night with the cast of The Young and the Restless by way of her couch.