Child of enslaved American dies at 90
Daniel Smith served as an Army medic during the Korean War and later marched with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in Washington, D.C.
Daniel Robert Smith, a 90-year-old descendant of a man born into slavery in Virginia during the Civil War, passed away last week.
According to The Washington Post, Smith died Wednesday at a hospital in Washington, D.C. His wife, Loretta Neumann, said he had cancer and congestive heart failure.
Smith, the fifth of six children, was born on March 11, 1932, in Winsted, Conn. His father, Abram “A.B.” Smith — 70 at the time and working as a janitor at an area clock factory — passed away in an automobile accident when he was 6 years old. His mother, 23-year-old Clara (Wheeler) Smith, was reportedly white with Scotch-Irish and Cherokee ancestry.
“I remember hearing [from my father] 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,” Smith recalled, according to The Post.
There was also the story about an enslaved man 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,” Smith said, The Post reported. “When he tried to remove it, half his tongue came off.”
Smith served as an Army medic during the Korean War. He later marched with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Washington, stood with other civil rights activists in Selma, and ran anti-poverty and literacy initiatives in rural Alabama. There, he reportedly fled a vehicle full of white supremacists, not stopping until he reached a roadside service station and found shelter.
Among the other racist encounters throughout Smith’s life is one that happened while he was working at a YMCA camp. Another swimmer had rescued a young white woman from the deep waters, and Smith started giving her mouth-to-mouth resuscitation after noticing she still had a pulse. A uniformed police officer insisted the woman was dead and demanded that he stop trying to save her.
“This remains the most racist incident I have ever experienced in my life,” Smith wrote in “Son of a Slave: A Black Man’s Journey in White America,” his pending memoir, according to The Post. “To this day, telling this story brings tears to my eyes. To think that someone would rather have anyone die rather than have her white lips touch my Black mouth. Incomprehensible.”
Later, Smith relocated to Washington, D.C., where he oversaw the Area Health Education Centers. He claimed to have turned down an offer from the CIA to spy on the African National Congress liberation movement.
He fathered two children with his first wife, Sandra Hawkins. Following his retirement in 1994, Smith volunteered at Washington National Cathedral, serving as head usher and escorting presidents, including Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. His first marriage ended in divorce, and in 2006, he wed Neumann in the cathedral.
Smith was preceded in death by his five siblings. Neumann survives him, along with two children from his first marriage, April Smith Motaung and Daniel “Rob” Smith Jr., as well as a granddaughter.
Neumann said she and Smith were finalizing his memoir just before his death and planned to self-publish it in the coming weeks.
Sana Butler, the author of the 2009 book “Sugar of the Crop: My Journey to Find the Children of Slaves,” assisted in editing his memoir. She said Smith’s story serves as “a reminder that slavery was not that long ago.”
“You talk about the transatlantic slave trade, you talk about Reconstruction, and people really think that it’s [ancient] history,” said Butler, The Post reported.
She said Smith serves as a reminder that slavery still permeates American families’ lives and that “it’s impossible to ‘get over it.’”
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