Daniel Smith heard stories about lynchings from his father, was part of the fight for civil rights, and is now witnessing the Black Lives Matter movement.
Trigger Warning: Racism, Violent Descriptions of Slavery
Those who claim that "slavery was so long ago" should learn about Daniel Smith, who The Washington Post called a "historical rarity." Smith is one of the few living sons of a Black man enslaved in the United States. While it is not possible to know with accuracy how many descendants of the enslaved are alive today, his story is a reminder that our tainted history is not as far back as we think it is. He grew up hearing about lynchings then saw the birth of the country's civil rights movement. Now, he is inspired by the ongoing Black Lives Matter movement.
As the child of someone once considered a piece of property instead of a human being, 88-year-old Daniel Smith is a flesh-and-blood reminder that slavery wasn't that long ago https://t.co/k4tuh5znkR— philip lewis (@Phil_Lewis_) July 27, 2020
Abram Smith, his father, moved up North from Massies Mill in Virginia when he was in his 20s and married a woman who was much younger than him. Smith is the fifth of six children. Only one of his siblings, now 92, is still alive. At five years old, Smith listened in shock to his father's stories about lynchings and punishments. One winter, his father saw the punishment doled out by a slaveowner when an enslaved man denied committing an unspecified offense. Smith shared, "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." The man was forced to kneel and lick the wheel. His tongue froze there until, in desperation, the man pulled part of it away. When he was older and expressed interest in dating White girls, his mother would warn him, "I don’t want to have to cut you down." There were also stories about the whipping post, where the enslaved were tied and beaten. The descendent stated, "We just listened, and whatever came out of his mouth, that’s what we heard."
Though his father continued to be mistreated following the Civil War, he instilled in Smith a sense of exceptionalism. Therefore, when he graduated from high school (a privilege not afforded to his father), "he set out into the world with a belief in America." The then-young man joined the Army and served as a medic during the Korean War. In a particular act of heroism, he once saved a drowning man when Hurricane Diane hit Winsted, where he was posted. Though 87 people died there after the Mad River breached its banks, Smith stripped off his clothes and rescued a truck driver named Joe Horte. His bravery would have gone unrecognized if it weren't for author John Hersey, who mentioned him by name in the New Yorker under the sub-headline “Negro Youth a Hero."
A second act of courage showed Smith the reality of what it was like to be a Black man in America—an America not far from his father's version of it. While working as a trip director for Connecticut YMCA camp Camp Jewell, he took a group of teenagers to a lake to show them a reservoir where he used to swim. He spotted a White woman who had fallen into a quarry and, acting quickly, rushed down to help. Though she had passed out, she still had a pulse. He leaned over to give her mouth-to-mouth just as a police officer called out, "Hey, you, you, YOU. She’s already dead. She’s already dead." As it turned out, the cop did not want him to put his lips on her. "And she died," he stated. He still feels "sick" about the incident to this day.
Smith went on to serve as a foot soldier in the fight for civil rights (and was even chased by white supremacists down a dark road in Alabama). Just before Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, he moved to the Washington area and built "a rich and meaningful life." He pursued a career as a federal worker promoting health and education and fighting poverty while he raised two children with his first wife. He retired in 1994 and wed his second wife—a White woman named Loretta Neumann—12 years later. Now, he is bearing witness to a rebirth of the civil rights movement in the form of Black Lives Matter protests. When he was growing up, there were no smartphones to capture incidents of racism or social media websites to raise awareness about them. Recently, as he drove down a road in his neighborhood, he saw anti-racism demonstrations and "felt inspired." Though he once thought Black folks and "everyone in America" were all "brainwashed" into believing in the idea of a free country, he "felt time unfolding" as he witnessed crowds once again agitating for racial justice.