As unlikely as it might seem, that boy, Daniel Smith, is still alive at 88, a member of an almost vanished demographic: The child of someone once considered a piece of property instead of a human being.
Long after leaving Massies Mill, Va., and moving up North as a young man in his 20s, Smith’s father, Abram Smith, married a woman who was decades younger and fathered six children. Dan, the fifth, was born in 1932 when Abram was 70. Only one sibling besides Dan — Abe, 92 — is still alive.
It’s not possible to know how many people alive today are the children of enslaved people, but we shouldn’t be so surprised that they still exist because the generations since slavery can be counted on one hand, said Hilary Green, an associate professor of history at the University of Alabama. “We don’t want to talk about it because we as Americans … we’re always forward thinking. We never think enough about the past.”
The American tendency toward selective memory applies doubly so to slavery, Green said. “How do you remember this violent period in history, the owning of people? It does not fit our narrative that we tell about ourselves. … We ratify the myth rather than deal with the truth.”
After his father died in 1938, Dan Smith picked up where Abram’s life left off, witnessing decades of the nation’s racial history — the injustice of Jim Crow, the grief and glory of the civil rights movement, the elections of the first black president and then Donald Trump, and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement. He watched the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis caught on cellphone video, horrified, and wonders where this new unrest will lead.
All along, Smith created his own history — as a medic in the Korean War and a hometown hero who rescued a man from a flood. He’s been chased on a dark road by white supremacists in Alabama as a foot soldier in the fight for civil rights. Smith was there when a young firebrand named John Lewis roused the crowd at the March on Washington, and he linked arms with activists in Selma across the Edmund Pettus Bridge.
Just weeks before Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, Smith moved to the Washington area, where he built a rich and meaningful life. Smith and his first wife, who was black, raised their two children in Bethesda, Md., while he pursued his career as a federal worker promoting health and education and fighting poverty. He retired in 1994 and in 2006 wed his second wife, Loretta Neumann, who is white, at the National Cathedral, where as head usher he escorted presidents.
What does it mean to Smith to be the living son of an enslaved person in the 21st century?
“Quite frankly, I’ve just grown up and been busy, and I’ve never thought much about it,” Smith said.
A courtly man with pecan-colored skin wearing a perfectly pressed blue and white striped collared shirt and khakis, Smith shared his life story from the wide front porch of his home in Northwest Washington on a sweltering July day. Cars rushed by as Neumann leaned in at his side to listen.
Yet when he thinks about it in this moment, time feels elastic. The 157 years since his father’s birth had once seemed like “a solid gap,” but now the time strikes him as distressingly brief. With Trump as president, the years feel to Smith like an accordion — the decades folding, folding — back toward slavery “almost to the point where it could happen again.”
And with a mountaintop view in his ninth decade of life, Smith can also see clearly the valleys and hills — how his father was shaped by slavery and racism and was able to push ahead despite it, and how Abram Smith did the best he knew how to prepare his children for life.
‘A.B. Smith’s children’
Abram Smith did not rise far from his beginnings, working as a janitor in a factory, and yet he extolled America and was invested deeply in its promise of opportunity for all.
“I remember my father and mother saying ‘It’s a free country. You can do anything you want, you can be anything you want,’ and they believed it,” Smith said.
Abram Smith spent time in Philadelphia and Poughkeepsie, N.Y., before settling in the early 1920s in the small, very white city of Winsted, Conn., where he lived with his second wife, Clara Wheeler, who was decades his junior. He was known in the community as “A.B. Smith,” and he made sure his four daughters and two sons knew what it meant to be his children.
“A lot of black children grew up in a world where they didn’t know who they were and where they came from,” Dan Smith said, “but we were A.B. Smith’s children, and that sustained us through anything.”
A.B. Smith’s children were the hardest workers, had the best manners and were the brightest, too. When the offspring asked why they were so superior, their parents replied: “Because you are the children of A.B. Smith.” They were forbidden to play with some poor black children in town, although his father cleaned a factory for a few dollars a day. “We were poor as church mice, but we were better because my father said we were better,” Dan Smith said.
Looking back, he can now see his parents as followers of the “twice as good” philosophy — the futile belief that black people must perform twice as well as whites just to be considered equal. And beneath the sunny message of how extraordinary the Smith children were lay Abram Smith’s stories of slavery with their frightening symbols of brutality.
There was the whipping post in the middle of the plantation where enslaved people were tied up and beaten.
There was the lynching tree. Two enslaved people in chains had run away together, and rumors held that they had been hanged there. Later, when Dan Smith wanted to date white girls, his mother would warn: “I don’t want to have to cut you down.”
There was the wagon wheel. The enslaver accused a man on the plantation of an unspecified offense, and the man denied it. “The owner said, ‘You’re lying to me,’ and had the man and his whole family line up in the winter in front of a wooden wagon wheel,” Smith recounted. The enslaver ordered the man to kneel and lick the wheel’s metal rim. His tongue froze there until the desperate man pulled part of it away.
Smith and his siblings listened quietly, aware any questions about their father’s past could be met with a strike to the face. Years later, he thinks his father was loath to relive the trauma and ashamed of his roots as an enslaved person. (It is unclear whether his work on the plantation ended with the war. The 1870 census listed Abram Smith as “a boy laborer,” and many newly freed slaves, with nowhere to go, remained where they were, mistreated, Green said.) “We just listened, and whatever came out of his mouth, that’s what we heard,” Dan Smith said.
After high school, he set out into the world with a belief in America and his own exceptionalism instilled in him by his father.
‘That will not happen to me’
Smith joined the Army, serving as a medic during the Korean War. In the summer of 1955, he was back in Winsted after Hurricane Diane when the Mad River breached its banks. Eighty-seven people died in the flood that day, but one was saved when Smith stripped down to his shorts and rescued a truck driver named Joe Horte. Smith is not the bragging sort, and his bravery might have gone unheralded if “Hiroshima” author John Hersey didn’t mention him by name in the New Yorker under the sub-headline “Negro Youth a Hero.”
It was a subsequent act of heroism, though, that showed Smith exactly what it meant to be a black man in America — so far from his father’s ideal. At this point, he looked up from his mask and paused, saying quietly: “I hope I don’t get too emotional.”
In about 1957, he was working as a trip director for Camp Jewell, a YMCA camp in nearby Colebrook, Conn., when he brought his group of teenagers back from a week at a lake to show them a reservoir where he used to swim. Upon their arrival, he spotted a commotion — a young woman had fallen into the quarry. Smith rushed down to help.
The woman had been hoisted onto dry land, and he bent over to check her pulse: still beating. He had leaned over to administer mouth-to-mouth resuscitation when a police officer yelled down: “Hey, you, you, YOU. She’s already dead. She’s already dead.”
At first, he didn’t know what the cop meant — Smith knew she was alive — but suddenly it dawned, and he backed away. “He didn’t want me to put my lips on her, and she died,” he said, still angry and “sick” about what happened.
That year, he realized that his parents had been sold a bill of goods about America as the land of the free: “We were all brainwashed. … Everyone in America fell for it.”
The truth was underscored when his older brother, Abe, signed a contract to buy his mother a house. He told Clara Smith, whose eyes filled with tears, that it was the white house up on the corner. Clara looked at her son and lit in. “You know that house is too good for me,” she said. “It’s better than the house of the white woman I work for.”
Perhaps it was the fact that he was A.B. Smith’s son, or maybe it was just him, but “I said to myself, ‘That will not happen to me,’ ” Smith said. “When I want something, I’m going to get it.”
By that time, the civil rights movement had begun. In August 1955, Emmett Till was lynched in Mississippi, and in December, after Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat for a white passenger, the Montgomery bus boycott was launched, led by a young pastor named Martin Luther King Jr.
Smith graduated from Springfield College in 1960 and worked as a social worker for three years. He and a white colleague in 1963 drove down from Massachusetts to be part of the March on Washington. Smith had been admitted into the veterinary program at the Tuskegee Institute but felt inspired to join the movement.
He was heading up an antipoverty program in Lowndes County, Ala., when the church office where Smith worked was burned to the ground. Not long after, Smith noticed he was being tailed on a dark country road. As he whizzed ahead, he heard his white pursuers yell, “Pull over, black coon!”
He thinks now about what might have happened had he not sped into a lit service station. Back then, there were no cellphones with video cameras to capture racism and no social media on which to share it. This was on his mind as he drove himself down 16th Street in his red Volvo this summer, taking in the protests over Floyd’s killing as Neumann waved a sign outside reading “Black and White Lives Together.”
He felt inspired by what he was witnessing. Streams of people of all races moved toward Black Lives Matter Plaza, led by the youth of a brand new era. And for a fleeting moment, as the crowds agitated for racial justice, Smith felt time unfolding.
Clarification: Dan Smith originally said his father worked for $16 a day as a janitor at a factory. He now thinks it must have been far less than that. This version has been updated.
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