Friday, December 10, 2021

Son of a Slave: a Black Man's Journey in White America

For me, it was another volunteer project: helping someone write and edit a book. Something I've done a few times since retirement, mostly for friends, to keep my skills sharp. For Dan, it was imperative: to get his remarkable story into the hands of readers before he dies.

Dan Smith at 88 in 2020; photo taken by The Washington Post

The significance of Dan's story is in the working title of his book: "Son of a Slave: A Black Man's Journey in White America." Yes, you read that correctly! The Civil War ended 156 years ago. Yet Dan is the son of Abram Smith, who was born into bondage on a Virginia plantation in 1863. Dan may very well be the last surviving offspring of an American slave, following the death of his 96-year-old brother in 2021. A number of other children of slaves have died in recent years at ages in the 90s and 100s, as written up in the news

Dan is 89. His health is tenuous. His life as a Black man (he insists on the capital B) is illustrative of the many indignities that a Black person can endure in this country. Even a well-educated, professional Black man like Dan, who served in the armed forces, met U.S. presidents, and headed a national health program. 

Dan Smith as a young soldier headed for Korea. Photo from Dan Smith.

Dan Smith was both witness to and participant in nearly a century of struggle--as victim of Jim Crow laws, civil rights activist, and government leader battered by discrimination. His autobiography is a first-hand account of events, tactics, and people that prevent the United States from realizing the promise that "all men are created equal."

Dan is determined to share his experiences with the world, to demonstrate that the white supremacy that accompanied our nation's founding is still with us two and a half centuries later. The lifetimes of Dan and his father span more than half of our most deplorable history, from slavery and the Civil War to the suppression of civil rights to George Floyd and Black Lives Matter.

It took Dan 10 years to complete the research, writing, and assembly of materials for his book. He had to dig out of the recesses of his memory the words of his mother when white police officers knocked on the door, the terror of marching with Martin Luther King, Jr., the snarl of a white boss at the National Institutes of Health. From boxes in the corners of his attic he retrieved the photo with John Lewis, the letter from John F. Kennedy, the printed testimony from a federal grievance hearing--records carefully stored for just such an eventuality as writing a book.

Dan met and collaborated with such prominent dignitaries as John Lewis and Desmond Tutu. Photo from Dan Smith.

While Dan labored over his memories, we met, discussed, debated, pondered, reviewed, revised. The master copy grew, gradually morphing from pages and pages--and pages--of handwriting to typed, stapled manuscript to thick white notebook, complete with scanned photos.

A sampling of my notes while I read the unfinished manuscript. Photo by Amber Jones.

After the coronavirus invaded Washington, Dan and I met on the outdoor patio of Busboys & Poets, papers blowing in the wind and thick manila envelopes spread before us. We debated by telephone. Dan doesn't use computers; he wrote his entire 300-page book in longhand and hired a typist. He does use email to some extent--thank goodness. In a pandemic, face-to-face contact is difficult.

Toward the end of his toil, I wore him down with a hundred tough questions I thought a publisher would ask, and prodded him for decisions on voice, tone, style, spellings, consistency, photographs, format. Dan's wife of 30 years, Loretta--busy with her own, uniquely Washington activities, including politics and historic preservation--carved out time to help edit, revise, and interpret stories. (Dan and Loretta married in the National Cathedral in Washington, DC, where he served as a volunteer usher, mingling with presidents--just another of his inspiring tales.) After the final copyedit, I rested, leaving Dan and Loretta to search frantically for an agent and publisher. Time is short, probably.

Meanwhile, Dan's history, including personal anecdotes about discrimination and the Ku Klux Klan, were discovered by the press. In 2020 and 2021 he has been interviewed by The Washington Post, NPR, and the BBC. There is interest in a movie. Most recently, The Economist came calling. I have copied that column below. But just wait until you read all his other chapters!

I am awed by Dan's persistence and proud of his progress. I hope you will read the column below, buy the book when it's published, be awed, learn something. And, most important, consider joining Dan in his higher calling: fighting for equality--not just in law, but in practice--for Blacks and all other citizens of our nation.

My volunteer writing and editing projects always leave me tired, yet proud--that I can contribute to a cause larger than my own narrow interests. In this case, I agree that it's imperative to get the story out.

    ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Column in the Economist, December 3, 2021

A racial-history lesson from the son of a slave

Daniel Smith may be the last direct link to slavery

Most Americans don’t know much about slavery. In a recent survey, only half could name it as the main cause of the civil war. Yet for Daniel Smith, the “whipping and crying post”, the hanging tree and other horrors of the antebellum South are not ill-taught, dusty history, but vivid family stories.

The 89-year-old retired bureaucrat heard them from his father Abram, who was born a slave in Virginia in 1863, two years before the war ended. “On Saturday evenings after dinner he and my elder siblings would gather and he would tell them what his parents had told him about slavery,” recalls Mr Smith, an only slightly stooped octogenarian, at his house in Washington, dc. “I used to sneak out of bed and sit listening on the floor. 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. 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. My father cried as he told us these things.”

It is chilling to hear him—a direct link to the history America is in many ways still struggling to escape. Sana Butler, who wrote a book on the children of slaves, identified only around 40 still alive in 1999, all of whom have since died. She did not track down Mr Smith, who was known in Washington as a well-connected civil-rights activist but rarely mentioned his family history. “It was something under the surface that we were not proud of,” he says. As his father’s only surviving child, after the death of his brother Abe earlier this year, he may well be the last living offspring of an American slave.

His memories underline how recent many of the rawest and most formative events of the American story are, especially for those on the receiving end of them. Slavery and the last Native American land-grabs are only two lifetimes away; no wonder the politics surrounding them, on all sides, are so intense. And the effect is particularly powerful in Mr Smith’s case because of how many momentous events in black history he has witnessed. Lexington got in touch to discuss his father, only to learn that Mr Smith had marched with Martin Luther King in Washington and Selma, feuded with the Black Panthers, been chased by Ku Klux Klan-inspired night riders through rural Alabama, been asked by the cia to spy on the anc in South Africa—and was in the crowd, tears pouring down his cheeks, to witness the inauguration of a black president. “A friend of mine calls me the black Forrest Gump,” he deadpans.

In fact his brushes with history chiefly reflect his talents and drive, which are characteristic of his black American generation. His father, a janitor aged 70 at the time of Mr Smith’s birth, was killed by a hit-and-run driver when Daniel was six. Abram’s death left his wife and six children almost destitute. Yet he had bred in them a fierce determination to rise. “We always said in our family, if you want to beat white people you’ve got to outwork them, you’ve got to outsmart them, you’ve got to stay up longer at night.”

Mr Smith graduated from high school in the mainly white town of Winsted, Connecticut, while working long mornings and evenings in a veterinary surgery to earn money. After a stint with the army in Korea, he went to college under the gi Bill, became a social worker, then enrolled in veterinary school in Alabama. Three of his five siblings also went to college. “The success of the generation raised by former slaves changed my whole perspective on this country’s history,” says Ms Butler. “Considering what they faced, and what they achieved, they are America’s greatest generation.”

In New England Mr Smith’s race was an everyday hurdle, but ultimately not a deal-breaker. He knew he could never make the first move on a white girl: “I don’t want to have to cut you down from that tree,” his mother would tell him. Yet he could rise: “America has always given me the right to work.” Alabama, where he arrived at the tail end of Jim Crow, was a different story. Southern blacks marvelled at his car and confidence among whites, including white women. It irritates him still; “Women are women, black, white, Indian or Chinese,” he says.

He was drawn into the civil-rights struggle, then roiling the state, and run-ins with Stokely Carmichael, a charismatic Panther who wanted to put money Mr Smith collected for anti-poverty programmes to more radical use. He preferred King’s moderation. But he has more time for Malcolm X’s radicalism now: “We needed both, King and the Panthers, the pull and the push,” he says.

Where slavery was, liberty can be

That reconsideration seems to reflect his downbeat view of race relations since the 1960s. Socially, he acknowledges, there has been huge progress. Many of his nieces and nephews are married to whites; his second wife is white (though it was a while before he would dare hold her hand in public, she notes). But institutionally he looks back on a history of failed promises.

He believes racist policing puts black children in greater peril today than he ever faced. He also notes that the “shining light” of Barack Obama’s election provoked a militant white reaction, in the form of Donald Trump, which is not weakening. The insurrection that the former president provoked and his party has refused to investigate, during which a Confederate flag was paraded through the Capitol, “was so revolting for our constitution”, he says. “There’s a big question about where we go from now.” And then Mr Smith, though visibly troubled, pulls himself up.

“Incidentally, we could never talk negatively about America in front of my father,” he says, speaking of a poor man, born a slave, who wore a well-brushed suit and fob watch to church on Sunday and drove his children to succeed. “He did not have much but he really, really loved America. Isn’t that funny?” 


James Astill

Washington bureau chief & Lexington columnist

The Economist