Dan Smith `60 has lived the American racial story. He is the son of a slave. He was chased to within inches of his life by the Klan on a haunting night in Alabama. He marched with Martin Luther King, Jr. He attended the inaugurations of Barack Obama. He was screamed at by a white cop as he tried to save a white girl’s life. He escorted presidents down the aisles of the Washington National Cathedral. He has seen moments of national shame and shimmering possibilities of transcendence as the country grapples with — and doesn’t grapple with — its original sin.
For Martin Dobrow, the story of Dan Smith '60 was one he felt compelled to tell. Smith's lineage as the son of a slave was a remarkable starting point, but the extraordinary life of the man beyond his father is what makes Smith's story so important. In this video Dobrow previews Juneteenth: The Son of a Slave Reflects on the America He Sees Today.
From the driver’s seat of his red 2014 Volvo, Dan Smith looked in on the huge protest thronging Sixteenth Street in the Northwest quadrant of Washington D.C. on Friday evening, June 5. Through the windows, he basked in all of the energy, all of the caring, all of the great messages — like the “Black and White Lives Together” sign held by his wife, Loretta Neumann.
The protest, of course, had grown out of the killing of George Floyd on May 25 in Minneapolis. The gruesome eight minutes and forty-six seconds under Derek Chauvin’s knee were on everyone’s mind. The pleading about not being able to breathe. The desperate cry for help to his deceased mother. The big dark body, lifeless.
This grim moment had unleashed activism America had not seen in at least 50 years. All the pent-up rage came spilling out. About Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery and Eric Garner and Tamir Rice and Philandro Castile and Michael Brown and on and on and on.
In Washington, the protests had gone right down to the White House, the one built in large part by Black slaves. There was a fire in a nearby church. A fence growing taller. A Bible held for the cameras.
On Friday, June 5, Mayor Muriel Bowser renamed a two-block stretch of 16th Street “Black Lives Matter Plaza.” The huge yellow letters were visible from satellites orbiting the planet.
Dan Smith kept the windows rolled up that night, a cautiousness that has long been one part of his character. Back in August, 1963, concerned that the March on Washington could devolve into a blood bath, he had hesitated before driving down from Connecticut with his white friend, Barry Fritz. On March 21, 1965, he had been at first reluctant to join the Selma to Montgomery march, two weeks to the day since Bloody Sunday, when club-swinging and tear-gas spraying police on horses stormed the Edmund Pettus Bridge to attack peaceful protesters. Even though he believed deeply in the cause, Smith wasn’t sure he could trust himself, because “I’m not a non-violent person.”
This time, 55 years later, the cautiousness came from a different place. There were tons of people on the street, bunched up closely. He was fearful of contracting the coronavirus. Plus, his knee replacement from October hadn’t completely healed; he was still limping around. Also, the cardiologist and rheumatologist and urologist “all have different pills for me.” He didn’t want to take the risk, because at 88, Dan Smith is still an ambitious man. There is stuff he wants to do.
But he wasn’t going to stay home, either. He was thrilled to see all the people — the huge range of skin color (“a mixture of everyone!”) — all there in support of Black lives. So he leaned on the horn, long and loud. He just wasn’t going to keep quiet.
He figured he owed that to all those who had struggled so hard over the years. He figured he owed it to Abram Smith, his father.
The former slave.
IT SEEMS almost mathematically impossible, but Dan Smith is, indeed, just one generation removed from American slavery. His father was born in Massies Mill, Virginia, right in the midst of the Civil War. He was, legally speaking, the property of a white man.
Many years later, Abram would marry a much younger woman, Clara Wheeler. Remarkably, he would be siring children right into the 1930s.
Dan has lived the American racial story. He was chased to within inches of his life by the Klan on a haunting night in Alabama. He marched with Martin Luther King. He attended the inaugurations of Barack Obama. He was screamed at by a white cop as he tried to save a white girl’s life. He escorted presidents down the aisles of the Washington National Cathedral. He has seen moments of national shame and shimmering possibilities of transcendence as the country grapples with — and doesn’t grapple with — its original sin.
And he doesn’t know exactly what to make of this cultural moment.
“Quite frankly, I am exhausted. It’s just so painful for me to think of all…my generation did — John Lewis, who now has cancer…and Martin Luther King, who worked so hard for a better America, and then Obama being elected. We all felt that the country was going (forward), that our efforts were worth something.
“It’s so disheartening. Then, when you see someone being murdered on TV, and you don’t want to believe it. It becomes so emotional and painful because you really can’t do anything.
“I’m through demonstrating, joining a big march and having the horses come after you — that kind of thing. It’s just really painful….And then there’s another one, and then you hear about another one.”
His voice catches, and he pauses.
“It really, truly, is exhausting.”
But seeing all those protesters out on 16th Street, looking at the thronging through the windows of his car, sensing the energy…well… “It’s all so hopeful.”
THE COMPLICATED story of the man with the simple name begins in a most unlikely place: Winsted, Connecticut. It’s a tiny incorporated city in rolling green hills of the northwestern part of the state that is hardly a bastion of diversity. According to the 2010 census, there were 7712 people in Winsted, a mere 2.2 percent of them African-American.
Dan Smith says that the city had about 10,000 people when he was growing up (perhaps including the encompassing town of Winchester) — and that “about 20” were Black.
Then again, the area does have some history with racial justice. After all, famed abolitionist John Brown was born just 10 miles away in Torrington.
Dan is not entirely sure how his father wound up in Winsted. Data that Dan and Loretta found at the national archive revealed that Abram was listed as a “boy laborer” in Virginia some years after the Civil War. He became a religious man and ultimately found his way up to New York. There, Dan believes, his father was cheated out of his money by some unscrupulous landowner. He moved to Winsted, where he worked from sunup to often past sundown as a janitor.
Abram and Clara had four girls and two boys. Daniel Robert Smith was the fifth of the bunch, born right in the heart of the Great Depression in March of 1932. His father was almost 70 at the time. Abram would die in a car accident when Dan was 6. A local obituary referred to him as a “refined gentleman.”
Money was tighter than tight. Clara took in foster children and worked as a domestic. Her eldest child, Marion, went to live with the town doctor and his wife, cooking meals and cleaning their house (though she ultimately made almost nothing when she was “charged” for the water she drank and the electricity she used). Eldest son Abe worked multiple jobs and brought back bags of unsold goods from a bakery.
Dan remembers the humiliation of waiting in line for public assistance and hearing a self-satisfied woman calling out, “One egg for Danny, one egg for ….” — and reminding him that this “generosity” was available because of the “hard work” of white people.
When he was in high school, Dan often worked 10 hours a day for a local veterinarian named Raymond Church. Dan would show up before school to clean kennels, then head back there immediately after: holding animals while the vet examined them, organizing the paperwork, feeding the sheltered dogs and cats, wiping the place down. He developed a love of dogs and a dream to one day be a veterinarian himself, but the days were unrelentingly long.
“When you grow up in a small town, Black and with no money, it is a struggle,” he says. “It’s a struggle every day. You have to fight to get things without begging and make sure that people respect you. It’s a negotiation every single day.”
Even so, Dan was able to get a good education. Winsted had a private high school — The Gilbert School, named for the late William L. Gilbert, owner of the biggest business in town, the Gilbert Clock Company. The school drew tuition-paying students from afar but remained open to local kids. Arguably the two most prominent students in the history of the school were a class ahead of Dan: future consumer advocate and presidential candidate Ralph Nader, and future Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist David Halberstam.
Still a few years before the Brown v. Board of Education decision, Dan learned to adapt to the white world as the only Black kid in his class. He was handsome, intelligent, and polite, but friends wouldn’t invite him to parties, only occasionally telling him he was “welcome to come.” He knew he could never ask out white girls. When he wanted to get a haircut, there was no one in Winsted who could do it. So after a morning shift at the vet on a Saturday, he would take a bus to Hartford, a cab to the Black barber, usually wait for two hours, then head home — having spent a whopping $15 on the transportation and the cut. He’d come back to school on Monday feeling poor, but looking good.
JUST A half mile from the school named after a white man who got rich on the ticking of time, rises a prominent hill on Crown Street. At the top, stands a 63-foot monument to local soldiers who fought in the Civil War. A triumphant soldier stands atop a Gothic Revival tower of locally quarried granite. A nearby American flag flaps heartily in the wind.
The monument was dedicated on September 11, 1890 before a crowd of over 10,000 people. The next day’s headline in the Hartford Courant was “Winsted’s Glorious Day.”
Winsted’s worst day came almost 65 years later in August of 1955. By then, Dan Smith was back from his tour of duty with the Army in Korea. He had worked as a medic, a scrub nurse, and an operating room technician — seeing some horrific things that occasionally darken his mind to this day. But he also developed a lifelong interest in working in health, as well as Red Cross water safety skills.
In that late summer of ’55, two hurricanes that tracked to the northeast saturated the ground within a week. A weekend of unrelenting rain sent the Mad River spilling over its banks, tearing through Main Street at terrifying speed. Other area towns were also affected, though Winsted saw the worst of the damage. In all, 87 people were killed. It would have been 88 if it were not for Dan Smith, who instinctively stripped to his skivvies and dove in, ultimately saving a truck driver named Joe Horte.
We know this, not through the characteristically modest Dan Smith, but through the legendary writer John Hersey, of “Hiroshima” fame. He wrote a story about the Winsted flood in The New Yorker, and also a lengthy syndicated newspaper piece that came out on August 28, 1955. The multi-page story in The Boston Sunday Advertiser was headlined, “Horror Test Bravely Met By Humanity.” It describes the flood in great detail, including a subheadline a few pages in stating “Negro Youth A Hero.”
Smith demurs on the hero assessment, but adds an amusing postscript many years later. He remembers walking home, where his mother had been informed prematurely of his likely death. She said, “What are you doing here?” before adding that she could now “put away the insurance papers.”
“She was a very practical woman,” Dan says with a chuckle.
ANOTHER TRAGEDY from this time is also etched in Dan’s memory. He was working as a trips director for Camp Jewell, a YMCA camp in nearby Colebrook that had started back in 1901. When he brought his group of teenagers back from a week at Lake George, he wanted to show them a reservoir in Winsted where he used to swim. He arrived to a scene of major commotion. Evidently a young woman had drifted too far, plunging into a deeper section of a quarry. Dan sent the campers back with his assistant director and joined the search.
The young woman was pulled onto the shore, and Dan sprang into action, sensing a pulse and getting ready to administer mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. But from a ledge up above, he heard the stern voice of a police officer calling out, “Hey you! You! You!!! — She’s already dead.” One of the girl’s relatives was with the cop. Dan realized the unthinkable: “That’s racism at the height of it,” he says. “He let the girl die, rather than have a Black man touch her lips. I’ll never forget that.”
Elsewhere, 1955 saw the de facto beginning of the modern civil rights movement: the lynching of Emmett Till in Money, Mississippi (with the indelible image of his grossly mangled face in Jet Magazine), and, in December, the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the emergence of Martin Luther King as a national civil rights leader.
The next year, funded in part by the GI Bill, Dan went to Springfield College in Massachusetts, an old YMCA School.
He navigated that mostly white world well: becoming a wrestler, singing in the glee club, even getting elected president of the student council. (He agreed, he now admits sheepishly, to use his white girlfriend’s campaign slogan: “Vote For Dan, The Man With A Tan.”) He does recall once being pulled out of his car by a white police officer who questioned his girlfriend; she insisted that she was there quite voluntarily with Dan Smith, the Springfield College student body president.
HE GRADUATED at the beginning of a new decade in 1960. That most transformative decade would, indeed, prove quite transformative for Dan.
For three years he worked as a social worker in state psychiatric hospitals. He saw the way this group was discriminated against, shunted aside, treated too often as if their lives didn’t matter.
During this time, he met a white colleague named Barry Fritz, a PhD candidate from New York with a passion for civil rights. The two debated the merits of driving down to the nation’s capital for the March on Washington in late August of 1963. Many people had speculated that the anticipated large crowd would erupt into violence. Dan was leery, but also impelled. They drove down the day before, hitting traffic as the sun set in Washington. Suddenly, they were pulled over by a white cop on a motorcycle, and it was hard for Dan not to play out a terrible scenario in his mind.
But when the police officer found out they were here for the March, he asked them where they were staying. When they said they didn’t know, he told them to follow him, and he escorted them to a house where marchers were staying. There were sleeping bags up on the third floor, doughnuts and juice and coffee.
“Police were really acting like policemen,” he says earnestly, “meaning they were protecting the public.”
The next day for Dan was a wonder, a vision of how things should be. They crowded up as close as possible to the memorial for Abraham Lincoln, who had emancipated a young child named Abram Smith.
He hung on every word from Dr. King:
This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice…
But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free…
We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now…
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character…
Dan Smith looked up and saw that Barry Fritz was crying. And then he realized that he was, too.
HE HAD his own dream, of course, the old one about becoming a veterinarian. He applied for and got accepted to the veterinary program at Tuskegee Institute, a historically black university in Alabama that had been established, in part, by Booker T. Washington. It would be Dan’s first real plunge into the South. One of his mother’s friends offered him a holstered pistol for self-defense. He politely declined. He packed his Hillman Husky full of possessions, including a new set of Encyclopedia Britannica, said goodbye to his mom, and hit the road.
The veterinary dream would prove short-lived. Tuskegee President Luther Foster had recently met Springfield College President Glenn Olds and learned about Dan’s leadership abilities. Foster called Dan in to his office, and saluted his desire to work as a vet, to be of service to animals. It was commendable. But wasn’t this a time when he could be of even greater service to humans? Wasn’t civil rights the cause of the time?
Dan would live in Alabama for just shy of four years, but that time would forever serve as a lighthouse to him, guiding him to the shore of who he needed to be. First, he worked as the associate director of an ambitious tutoring program across 12 Alabama counties. Many of the students were illiterate migrant workers. Dan recalls that one day one of the men, at least 70 years old, walked into his office and said, “Mr. Smith? I would like to show you something.” He slowly took a paycheck out of his pocket, turned it over, and, with tears in his eyes, signed his name — rather than affixing his usual “X” on the paper.
Then Dan became director of a federal antipoverty program in Lowndes County. This county was notorious for its racism. Eighty percent of the people who lived there were Black. All of the registered voters were white.
This area became the epicenter of the violent voting rights struggle in 1965. First, on February 18, Jimmie Lee Jackson, a local 26-year-old Black man, was gunned down by a state trooper while seeking refuge in a restaurant after a protest. On March 7, Bloody Sunday shocked Americans with its images of police brutality, young John Lewis clubbed on the head on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Two days later, the marchers tried again, only to turn back because of a federal injunction. That night in Selma, a white Unitarian minister from Massachusetts, James Reeb, who had traveled south in support of the protests, was viciously attacked on the sidewalk. He died a few hours later.
On March 21, the marchers gathered again with Martin Luther King leading the way, and this time a protective squadron of federalized national guard workers provided cover. Dan Smith, at first reluctant to join because he was worried that, if provoked, he would not be able to refrain from retaliating, decided ultimately to join the nonviolent march. He walked not far behind Dr. King and Coretta. He met people like Harry Belafonte and Ralph Bunche. And to his amazement, he saw a white face he remembered, one of his former Springfield College English professors, Ed Sims.
They marched all the way to the state capitol in Montgomery, where Governor George Wallace held sway. On the top step of the Capitol was a star where Jefferson Davis had taken the oath as the President of the Confederacy. The Confederate battle flag flapped in the breeze. Diagonally across the street stood the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, Dr. King’s first congregation, the place that helped launch the bus boycott.
The march was an American success story — the Voting Rights Act would soon be passed — but also an American tragedy, mitigated as the race story always seems to be. The night that the march concluded, Viola Liuzzo, a white woman from Michigan who had driven down to support the protests, was shuttling marchers back to Selma. She was chased on Highway 80 by members of the Ku Klux Klan, shot twice in the head, and took her last breaths as her car crashed into a fence.
Dan almost suffered the same fate. The church office where he worked in Hayneville was burned to the ground. A local judge who had helped Dan get electricity and phone service was punished by local residents, who poisoned 21 of his cows. And then one night after working late, Dan saw headlights rapidly approaching in his rearview mirror on a dark Alabama road.
For 20 miles of sheer terror, Dan sped along and veered off, absorbed the ramming of his bumper, heard the screams from the four white pursuers: “Pull over, nigger!”
His response spoke volumes about racism in America: “Not this coon! Not this Black coon!”
Dan floored the car, churning down mile after mile, the four whites in ravenous pursuit. The night was almost impossibly dark. Dan was gunning for Montgomery with every ounce of his will.
Finally, approaching the outskirts of the city, he saw the lights of a service station. He screeched into the parking lot, almost crashing into the adjacent building. His heart was hammering as the other car peeled away.
“It was,” he now says, “worse than terrifying.”
Even now, it is hard to fight off the sense of what could have been. “Had they caught me, I wouldn’t be here,” he says. “I would have been just like all the Black guys who were being shot and killed.”
There were no cell phones, no cameras. Who knows how the story would have been told, or whether it would have been told at all.
The events surge into his mind from time to time. “That still comes back to haunt me. You know how some things never ever leave you? You go on with your life…”
GO ON, he did. In 1968, Dan moved north to work in Washington D.C. By then, he was married to Sandra Hawkins, a younger Black woman who had also grown up in a mostly white New England town. The valedictorian of her high school class, she had gone out to Reed College in Oregon on scholarship, and then became a nurse. They purchased a house together in leafy, largely Caucasian, Bethesda, Maryland. The former covenant on the house from 1942 was no longer in force — the one that stipulated that the property should never be sold to “any Negro or persons of Negro descent or blood or extraction, or to any person of the Semitic race…”
They would raise two children in Bethesda, children who would one day express a wish to have grown up in a more Black environment.
Dan worked for the government for more than 25 years in education, health, and antipoverty programs. He became a prominent and successful man, proud particularly of his work establishing a national health education program, the Area Health Education Center (AHEC), that is still going strong after almost 50 years.
He would serve internationally as well. Notably, he traveled to South Africa in the mid-1980s to develop a program similar to AHEC. While there, he was invited to the installation of Desmond Tutu as the Archbishop of Cape Town.
After his divorce from Sandra in 1986 and his retirement from the federal government in 1994, Dan continued to work in Washington. He served first as an usher, then as head usher at Washington National Cathedral. In that role, the dignified son of a man born into slavery escorted United States Presidents into major national events, ranging from the national prayer service following the attacks on September 11th, to the funerals of Presidents Ronald Reagan and Gerald Ford, to the inaugural prayer service of President Barack Obama.
His strength and decency commanded respect. Without a shred of pretension, he had become a regal presence.
So much so that the Washington National Cathedral played host to another event where Daniel Robert Smith did not serve as usher — his wedding to Loretta Neumann in 2006.
ALONG THE way, Dan has maintained a deep loyalty to the formative parts of his past. He was a leading force in the creation of the Korean War Memorial in Washington in 1995. He returned to the Gilbert School in Winsted to be honored as the distinguished alum in 2011. (He was introduced that night by Loretta, who regaled the audience with some of her husband’s virtues: “Intelligence coupled with creativity. Determination. Perseverance. Lots of gumption! An amazing capacity for hard work…”) At Springfield College, he served on the board of trustees, and returned to campus for a panel discussion on the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington.
He stayed tight with his family as well. In time, his four sisters died, but he is still in contact with his older brother Abe — perhaps the only other child of someone born into slavery still alive in the United States. Abe is in a nursing home in California. Dan talks sometimes to his aides for updates, and occasionally to Abe himself, who tells Dan: “I’m just trying to stay alive.”
Few Americans have ever straddled the Black and white worlds more completely than Dan Smith. He has cringed at the moments of grief: Rodney King beaten senseless by Los Angeles police officers in 1991, Trayvon Martin hunted down in Florida in 2012. He has soared at the moments of transcendence, practically floating through the day while attending Barack Obama’s inauguration with Loretta. “Overwhelming — just overwhelming,” he says. “I just could not believe in my life that I would see a Black president, that America would vote for a Black president. When Obama came on, I cried. I just cried….It was so emotional. It was just a wonderful feeling about America.”
Which, of course, comes and goes.
For the most part, Dan Smith has lived a quiet life, out of the limelight. He has never sought publicity. But increasingly in recent years he has started to recognize that his story is an important story, that stories themselves are important. He sensed people drawing in to the lessons of his life when a New York Times piece in 2013 referenced part of his journey in an analysis of the progress — and lack thereof — in racial justice in the 50 years since the March on Washington.
Of course, there is a power as well in the stories that are undertold, or told falsely, or buried entirely. Why is it that so few Americans have ever heard the story of the carnage on “Black Wall Street” in 1921 in Tulsa — the very city where President Trump will hold his first campaign rally tomorrow? What message do we send when we name a major military base for a general who fought against the United States? What story do we tell when we erect a monument in public space to a Civil War general? (“I never could understand,” Dan says, “why Robert E. Lee is still up there.”)
And so, well past retirement, right up against the ravages of health toward the end of a long life, Dan Smith is working hard to tell his story. Some of it comes out in the letters he writes — like the one he recently sent to Mayor Muriel Bowser, congratulating her on her leadership, or the one he has been crafting this week to the Washington Post with his views about police reform.
Mostly, though, he is cranking away on his memoirs, writing longhand, hiring a typist, having Loretta edit it, and eventually sending it over to Georgetown University Press.
Here in the United States on Juneteenth — the celebration of the end of slavery — we are surrounded by stories of Black men hanging from trees in California, being shot in the back in Atlanta, being smothered on a sidewalk in Minneapolis.
Dan Smith will be home writing. It is a story, he has come to believe, that must be told.