Daniel Smith, one of the last children of enslaved Americans, dies at 90

Growing up in the 1930s, Daniel R. Smith listened to his father’s stories, as young men often do. He wasn’t supposed to hear these stories—they were meant for his older siblings, not a 5- or 6-year-old—but he would sneak out of bed on Saturday evenings after dinner and listen to the “whipping and crying” accounts. the post of the lynch tree and the wagon wheel.

These were brutally vivid stories of slavery, as her father had been born into slavery in Virginia during the Civil War and worked as a child laborer before moving north from Connecticut, where the Smiths were among the only African Americans in their town.

Mr. Smith recalled decades later: “I remember hearing about two slaves chained together at the wrists and trying to escape. “Some wild dogs found them hiding under a tree and hanged them from the tree. I also remember a story about a slave who was accused of lying to his owner. He put his family out in the snow until he got his tongue stuck in an icy wagon wheel. When he tried to take it out, half of his tongue came out.

“My father cried when he told us these things.”

Mr Smith, who was 90 when he died on October 19 In a hospital in Washington, D.C., he was one of the last remaining children of enslaved Black Americans, a rare connection to slavery in the United States. Born when his father was in his 70s, he was part of a dwindling, then completely extinct generation, and carried with him stories of slavery told firsthand by mothers and fathers trying to build a new settlement after enduring harsh conditions on Southern plantations. , a better life for their families.

Historians say that it is impossible to know how many children were left by enslaved people. But author Sana Butler was able to track down about 40 people who were still alive while researching her book Sugar of the Crop: My Journey to Find the Children of the Slaves (2009). They have all died since then. Mr. Smith was not featured in the book, although he later met Butler and helped edit his forthcoming book, Son of a Slave: A Black Man’s Journey in White America.

Her story “reminded me that slavery wasn’t that long ago,” Butler said. “You talk about the transatlantic slave trade, you talk about Reconstruction, and people really think that happened. history,” something that happened in the distant past and has little relevance today. “Mr. Smith,” he added, “is a reminder that it’s impossible to ‘get over it'” to move past slavery and pretend it doesn’t matter anymore, “because it’s still [present] in the lives of these families.”

He was the last American to receive a Civil War pension – $73.13 a month. He just died.

It was in part through his father, Abram “AB” Smith, who died in a car accident when Daniel Smith was 6, that he developed a fierce pride and tenacity in his work in civil rights, health care and education. “A lot of black kids grew up in a world where they didn’t know who they were or where they came from,” Mr. Smith told The Washington Post in 2020, “but we were AB Smith’s kids, and that supported us. everything.”

After a childhood in which he and his siblings were “as poor as church mice,” Mr. Smith served as an Army medic during the Korean War, marched on Washington with the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., and locked arms with fellow soldiers. He ran literacy and anti-poverty programs at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma and rural Alabama, where he once outpaced a carload of white supremacists on a dark country road without stopping until he found shelter at a service station.

Mr. Smith later settled in the Washington area, where in the 1970s he directed a federally funded program called Regional Health Education Centers, working to improve health care in underserved communities across the country. His work took him to apartheid-era South Africa, where he met Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and upon his return, he said he was propositioned by a CIA officer who wanted to spy on the African National Congress’s liberation movement. (Mr. Smith rejected it.)

Decades later, as Barack Obama was sworn in as America’s first black president, Mr. Smith stood in the crowd, choking back tears. He said he was privileged to be a part of so much history — “A friend of mine calls me Black Forrest Gump,” he told the Economist last year — and for a while, at least, he thought little of his family’s life. as one of the last surviving children of a man whose history and heritage is more property than a person.

“Obviously, I’ve just grown up and been busy,” he said. “And I never thought much of it.”

At 88, Daniel Smith is a historical rarity – the living son of an enslaved Black American

The fifth of six children, Daniel Robert Smith was born on March 11, 1932, in Winsted. His father was a janitor in a watch factory. His mother, Clara (Wheeler) Smith, was 23 years old at the time. Little was known about his life, but Mr. Smith said he was White, of Scots-Irish and Cherokee ancestry.

After her father’s death, she became a housekeeper and raised Mr. Smith and his siblings with the help of a surrogate father, including a White veterinarian who gave her a job at his clinic and fostered Mr. Smith’s lifelong love of animals. He was particularly drawn to dogs – especially Dobermans – and became a member of the county dog ​​obedience training club, where he was one of the few Black trainers, participating in the American Kennel Club competitions at New York’s Madison Square Garden. his memory.

Although he hoped to serve in the Army’s K-9 Corps, he was told they did not accept Black soldiers and instead served as a medic using his veterinary training while working at a military hospital in Korea.

By 1955, he was back home in Winsted, Connecticut, where flooding had killed nearly 100 people after Hurricane Diane. The death toll would have been higher had it not been for Mr. Smith, who rescued a truck driver from floodwaters, an act of heroism documented by Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter John Hersey, who covered the storm for the New Yorker.

About two years later, Mr. Smith encountered another life-and-death scenario while working at a YMCA camp near Winsted. During a trip to a reservoir where he once went swimming, he tried to help a young woman who got lost in deep water and was pulled out by another swimmer. Mr Smith discovered she still had a pulse and began mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. The uniformed police officer then insisted that the woman was already dead and ordered her to stop.

It was immediately clear the officer had made a mistake, Mr Smith recalled. He still had a pulse. But he was White; he was black. “It remains the most racist thing I’ve ever experienced in my life,” he said in his memoirs. “To this day, I get teary-eyed when I tell this story. To think that someone would rather die than have their white lips touch my Black mouth. Unfathomable.”

Mr. Smith graduated from Springfield College in Massachusetts in 1960 and was a psychiatric social worker before entering veterinary school at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama.

By 1963, he had switched from medicine to civil rights, deciding he could help more people than animals. He ran a poverty alleviation program in Lowndes County, near Montgomery. According to journalist Martin Dobrow, the church office where he worked burned to the ground, and a local judge who helped him get phone service and electricity faced punishment from locals who poisoned 21 of his cows.

A few weeks before King’s assassination in 1968, Mr. Smith moved to the Washington area, where he worked for federal agencies, including the Health Resources and Services Administration, and raised two children with his first wife, the former Sandra Hawkins. Together, they bought a house in Bethesda, Md., with a racially restrictive covenant that forbade black or Jewish ownership.

After retiring in 1994, Mr. Smith volunteered at the Washington National Cathedral, where he accompanied presidents including Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. His first marriage ended in divorce and in 2006 he married Loretta Neumann in a cathedral.

Mr. Smith, who lived in the Tacoma section of the county, was preceded in death by five sisters. His wife confirmed his death and said he had cancer and heart failure. In addition to two children from his first marriage, he is survived by April Smith Motaung of Columbia, Md.; and Daniel “Rob” Smith Jr. of New York. and grandson.

Neumann said he and Mr. Smith were finalizing his memoir while he was in the hospital, and he plans to self-publish it through the D.C. bookstore Politics and Prose within the next two weeks.

Mr. Smith told interviewers that while he has increased anxiety about the future under the Trump administration, especially after the Jan. 6, 2021 uprising, he thinks the country has made a lot of progress since he was a child. He noted that despite everything he experienced in his childhood, his father would at least maintain a positive outlook.

“We could never speak negatively about America in front of my father,” Mr. Smith told the Economist. “He didn’t have much, but he really, really loved America. Isn’t it funny?’

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