Daniel R. Smith was one of the last of this nation’s descendants of an enslaved American. Veteran and lifelong activist Smith died in hospice care in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday at the age of 90, his wife Loretta Neumann confirmed to CBS News.
Smith’s father, Abram “A.B.” Smith, was born into bondage in 1863 in Virginia. Smith was 70 when his son Daniel was born in 1932. Smith says he remembers being around 5 or 6 years old when he first heard his father talk about the years he’d spent on a plantation.
He told The Washington Post his father would cry as he told stories of the brutality he’d witnessed—the “whipping and crying post” and of the “lynching tree and the wagon wheel.”
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“I remember hearing about two slaves who were chained together at the wrist and tried to run away,” Smith recalled. “They were found by some vicious dogs hiding under a tree, and hanged from it. 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.”
Smith’s father would eventually move north to Connecticut and marry Clara Smith.
Daniel Smith is the fifth of six children. When he was born, his father worked as a janitor at a clock factory, and Smith told the Post his mother was white, with Scotch-Irish and Cherokee ancestry.
Smith chronicled his father’s story and his own in Son of a Slave: A Black Man’s Journey in White America, which Sana Butler, author of Sugar of the Crop: My Journey to Find the Children of Slaves, helped him to edit.
“You talk about the transatlantic slave trade, you talk about Reconstruction, and people really think that it’s history,” Butler told the Post, adding that Smith’s memoir is “a reminder that slavery was not that long ago.”
Smith’s story “is a reminder that it’s impossible to ‘get over it,’” Butler says, and to deny the relevance of slavery “because it’s still [present] within these families’ lives.”
The younger Smith’s own life story is as fascinating, frightening, and inspiring as his father’s.
After serving as an Army medic in the Korean War, Smith returned to begin a life in activism. He marched with Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge along with other Civil Rights activists, and, while living in Alabama, ran a literacy and anti-poverty program, the Post reports.
All of which put Smith directly into the line of fire of white supremacists, who, according to CBS News, burned his office building to the ground and tried to run him off the highway. He survived by ducking into a service station.
Smith later moved to D.C. in 1968, and in the 1970s, he ran the federally-funding Area Health Education Centers program in the 1970s. He retired in the 1990s and began serving at the National Cathedral, where CBS News reports he met presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama.
Smith had two children with his first wife, Sandra Hawkins—April Smith Motaung of Columbia, Maryland, and Daniel “Rob” Smith Jr. of New York. Smith’s first marriage ended in divorce; in 2006, he married Neumann.
Smith says that despite the hard life his father lived, he was stern when it came to his children calling out the country that enslaved him.
“We could never talk negatively about America in front of my father,” Smith said in 2021. “He did not have much, but he really, really loved America. Isn’t that funny?”
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