In his nine decades of life, Daniel Smith has witnessed some of the biggest moments in the nation’s racial history — from the grief and glory of the civil rights movement, to the election of the first Black president, and most recently the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Smith shared some of his life’s memories with producer Dave Fraser, which included growing up in northern Connecticut and attending Springfield College.
Read the full transcript:
Zydalis Bauer, Connecting Point: In his ninth decade of life, Daniel Smith has witnessed decades of the nation’s racial history, from the grief and glory of the Civil Rights Movement to the election of the first Black president, and most recently, the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement.
He shared some of his life’s memories with producer Dave Fraser, which included growing up in northern Connecticut and attending Springfield College
Dave Fraser, Connecting Point: On the campus of Springfield College in March of 2014, a special event was held that brought together three men, all of whom had attended Martin Luther King’s 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington. One of those men was Dan Smith, a 1960 graduate of Springfield College.
Professor of communications at the college Martin Dobrow was the moderator for the event and recalls how Dan’s story piqued his interest.
Professor Martin Dobrow, Springfield College: Dan is a constitutionally very modest person, who I don’t think thinks of his own life as being anything particularly extraordinary. But to me, he’s really sort of like the Forrest Gump of Civil Rights. He has just been everywhere.
This is someone who attended the march on Washington, who walked with Dr. King from Selma to Montgomery, who worked in Alabama at the height of the Civil Rights Movement. And some very — you know, had some very harrowing encounters there. Ultimately, someone who attended the inauguration of Barack Obama.
So, he’s really lived the trajectory of the American racial story in what to me feels like a pretty unique way. And so it seemed to me, really the vehicle for a great story.
Dave Frasert: Dobrow wrote about Smith last June in a story that appeared in the online publishing platform Medium. What makes this story even more unique is that at the age of 88, Dan Smith is the living son of a slave.
Professor Martin Dobrow: There had to be very special circumstances for this to happen. One is that his dad had to procreate quite late. Dan came into the world in 1932, so his dad was almost 70 at the time. And then Dan himself, you know, would have to live a pretty lengthy life. And that was obviously true back in 2014, and here he is still going strong in 2020.
Dave Fraser: Dan spent his youth growing up in Winstead, Connecticut. He was just six when his father was killed in a car accident, leaving his mother, Clara, to raise Dan and his five siblings in a town of not many black people.
Daniel Smith, Civil Rights Activist: We were always embarrassed and ashamed that we were descendants of slaves. You know, it wasn’t until recently that people are proud that they were descended.
But when we grow up, I mean kids in school say, “oh, you’re you’re from a slave. You’re just a slave.”
Dave Fraser: Despite Dan’s family history, he was able to get a good education in town. But as the only black kid in class, Dan had to learn to adapt to the white world.
Daniel Smith: I couldn’t get a haircut in Windsor, because they wouldn’t cut Black people’s hair. So, I had to take a bus to Hartford, take a cab to the barber shop, and it cost me fifteen dollars.
Because that, you know, to me that was a lot of money.
Dave Fraser: After high school, Dan served a tour of duty in the U.S. Army during the Korean War. He worked as an operating room technician, and it was here that he developed an interest in public health.
In 1955, when Hurricane Diane roared through northern Connecticut, Dan, who was an excellent swimmer, performed an act of heroism that is still remembered to this day, saving a drowning man from the turbulent Mad river.
Daniel Smith: The interesting thing was that everyone thought I had drowned or we had drowned. So, when I finally got home, I had to walk home. Got home, I walked in my mother’s house and she said, “What are you doing here?” And she said, “The police said you were dead.”
And I said, “No, I’m not dead.” Then she said, “Well, put the insurance papers back.”
Dave Fraser: The next year, funded in part by the GI Bill, Dan went to Springfield College. And even though his life was shaped by slavery and racism, he was able to push ahead.
He joined the wrestling team, sang in the Glee Club, and was elected president of the student council. In August of 1963, Dan, along with a white friend from Connecticut, drove to the nation’s capital to participate in the March on Washington.
Martin Luther King, Jr., Civil Rights Leader: I am happy to join with you today…
Dave Fraser,: Although Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech was powerful, it was the speech of young John Lewis that resonated with Dan.
John Lewis, Civil Rights Leader: We must get in this revolution and complete the revolution on the Delta and Mississippi, in southwest Georgia, in the Black belt of Alabama, in Harlem and Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia and all over this nation, the Black masses on the march for jobs and Freedom.
Daniel Smith: So when he came on, it was just spellbound. I mean, King was incredible, but John really spoke from the heart about getting things done now, don’t wait.
Dave Fraser: Dan would take the words that were spoken that day to heart and follow his own dreams. He enrolled in the veterinary program at Tuskegee Institute, a historically Black university in Alabama.
Daniel Smith: I mean, it was a whole new world for me in Tuskegee. All Black community, we had one or two whites on campus. All the guys in my veterinary class at the time had witnessed some serious discrimination or violence. Either they had or their parents had. So, they’ve got a very quick education.
Dave Fraser: This career path was short lived. Because of his leadership abilities, Dan was encouraged to work towards the cause of Civil Rights.
Professor Martin Dobrow: That was one of those forks in the road. You know, two roads diverged in the yellow wood kind of moment in his life. And he made what was a powerful choice and, you know, wound up working very intensely with the Civil Rights Movement down in Alabama.
Had a couple of harrowing encounters while he was there, once chased within a few inches of his life by the Ku Klux Klan on a dark road in Alabama. And so, I think those years were very important to Dan, also a small chunk of his life, but an important chunk.
Dave Fraser: Throughout his life, Dan has witnessed decades of this nation’s racial history, from the injustice of Jim Crow to the grief and glory of the Civil Rights Movement to the election of the first Black president.
Daniel Smith: When I was growing up, the talk within the Black community oriented white community and especially, they’d say “In 20 years though, we are going to be different.” And when Obama was elected, Loretta and I went to Obama’s inauguration. When he came on to make his speech, I mean, I was just crying.
The guy next to me who was white was crying. Everyone was was — just it was so emotional. Loretta was crying, right? It was just so emotional because we all felt the same thing if this is finally here. But it has changed, and not for the better.
Dave Frasert: At age 88, there is no question that Dan has witnessed moments of national shame and shimmering possibilities. He retired in 1994, and in 2006 when his second wife, Loretta Neuman, at the National Cathedral, where Dan served as the head usher, escorting United States presidents into major national events. Today, at his home in northern Washington, he and Loretta are working on Dan’s memoirs.
Daniel Smith: I think it’s important for my memoirs, I hope we show, is the path I’ve taken from birth to where I am now. And the path that we’re on.
My philosophy has always been life has no obstacles, only challenges. And although I’ve never had a fight in my life, I was always ready to do battle.