He is known not just for being one of the last people in America to be born to slave parents, but also for being a steadfast civil rights advocate who campaigned for the rights of Black people. During the apartheid era in South Africa, Daniel Smith visited Archbishop Desmond Tutu and marched with Martin Luther King Jr. in Washington. He also attended the inauguration of Barack Obama, the country’s first Black president. Daniel Smith also fled the Ku Klux Klan.
Before his passing on Wednesday at the age of 90, he worked as a federal employee and founded a nationwide training program for primary care physicians. Smith was the fifth of six children and was born on March 11, 1932, in Winsted, Connecticut. Clara, his mother, was White and descended from Scotch-Irish and Cherokee people. Abram Smith, his father, was a former slave who gave birth to him at the age of 70. Then, Clara was 23.
Smith’s father, who was born into bondage in Virginia in the 1860s before coming north to Connecticut with his family, told him stories of slavery as a child.
“I remember hearing about two slaves who were chained together at the wrist and tried to run away. They were found by some vicious dogs hiding under a tree, and hanged from it,” Smith recalled years later. “I also remember a story about an enslaved man who was accused of lying to his owner. He was made to step out into the snow with his family and put his tongue on an icy wagon wheel until it stuck. When he tried to remove it, half his tongue came off.”
He said his father cried as he narrated these stories to him and his siblings. Still, he taught them to be kind and to “do good things” and never “talk negatively about America,” Smith recalled in an interview with CBS.
“He said, ‘You have nothing to cry about. This is America. We came from the strongest of the strong. We survived the ships,’” Smith said. “He gave me the signal to be strong and to survive.”
Smith did endure the loss of his father in an accident when he was just six years old, however. According to The Washington Post, his mother had to work as a cleaner while caring for him and his siblings with the help of surrogate fathers. A White veterinarian who served as one of the surrogate fathers assisted Smith in obtaining employment at his clinic, and it was through this employment that Smith developed a love of dogs. He competed in American Kennel Club events in Madison Square Garden in New York, where he was one of a select group of Black trainers. He had wanted to serve in the Army’s K-9 Corps but the color of his skin didn’t allow him to so he served as a medic at a military hospital in Korea.
When Hurricane Diane hit Winsted in 1955, water killed close to 100 people there. When Smith saved a truck driver from the floodwaters, he gained notoriety as a hero. Smith then attended college and was chosen as the student body president by a diverse group of peers. Smith then had a memorable encounter while working at a YMCA camp close to Winsted. When he attempted to assist a girl who had fallen into the deep water and had been rescued by another swimmer, he was on a field trip with his young charges to view an old reservoir.
Smith chose to begin mouth-to-mouth resuscitation on the Caucasian girl once he discovered a clear pulse. He then heard a cop yell, “She’s already dead,” though.
Smith knew right away that the officer merely objected to a Black man touching a White woman. The policeman halted because he would prefer for her to perish. Smith admitted in his memoir that he had encountered discrimination as a child, but that “this remains the most racist occurrence I have ever experienced in my life.”
Following his graduation from Springfield College in Massachusetts in 1960, Smith began working as a psychiatric social worker before enrolling at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama for veterinary school. But he left medicine to work for civil rights, rising to become the head of a program to fight poverty in Lowndes County, Montgomery. White nationalists tried to run his car off a highway and set fire to his office building, but he managed to flee to a petrol station crowded with Black customers, according to CBS News.
Before settling in the Washington, D.C., region and leading the federally financed initiative known as the Area Health Education Centers that intended to promote healthcare, he was present when King delivered his “I have a dream” address in 1963.
Due to his job, he traveled to South Africa during the apartheid era, where he met Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Years later, he would watch Obama being sworn in, and he was happy to have been present for that momentous day. After retiring in 1994, Smith worked as an usher at the Washington National Cathedral, where he first met Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.
Smith, a civil rights activist, passed unexpectedly last week as he was writing his memoir. He suffered congestive heart failure and cancer, according to his wife Loretta Neumann. Smith’s wife, two children from a previous marriage, and granddaughter survive him.