Daniel Smith, an American civil rights activist and the son of a former slave, died at the age of 90, according to his wife. Smith died on Wednesday night at a hospice center in Washington, according to Loretta Neumann. His daughter April and son Rob, she said, were by his side.
Smith’s colorful life story included escaping the clutches of the Ku Klux Klan in the Deep South, marching on Washington with Martin Luther King Jr., and attending the inauguration of Barack Obama, the first Black president. His father Abram, born in 1863 in Virginia, was briefly the property of a white man, making Smith only one generation removed from slavery.
Daniel Smith was born on March 11, 1932, in Winsted, Connecticut, the fifth of Abram’s six children with his second wife, Clara.
Smith told CBS News’ chief legal correspondent Jan Crawford his incredible story in February, telling her about the messages he’d received from his father, a freed slave.
“We are survivors,” Smith explained to Crawford.
In the early 1860s, his father, Abram, was born into bondage in Virginia. Smith, his youngest son, was born when he was 70 years old. Smith recalled to Crawford how his father would tell him stories about the atrocities his ancestors endured and survived.
“Father said, ‘You could hear them screaming and crying at the whipping post,'” Smith said. “But the interesting thing: my father never allowed you to talk negatively about America.”
Smith told CBS News that his father believed that his young son would have the opportunity to be great in the new America.
“He grabbed my wrist and shook me. ‘You have nothing to cry about,’ he said. This is the United States. We were descended from the strongest of the strong. ‘We made it through the ships,’ “Smith stated. “He signaled to me that I needed to be strong and survive.”
In an interview with the French news agency AFP in 2020, Smith expressed concern that then-President Donald Trump would reverse decades of racial progress in the United States, and he urged the public to support the Black Lives Matter movement.
He remembered facing discrimination as a child, but he still secretly dated some white girls at school, much to his mother’s horror, who feared the worst if their families found out.
He was drafted into the army after high school and served as a medic in Korea. When he returned home, he became a hero when he dove into a hurricane-swollen river to save a truck driver in 1955.
He was able to attend college thanks to the military, and he was elected student body president by a mixed-race student body. During this time, he also experienced a tragedy that would haunt him for the rest of his life.
Smith was working at a summer camp when he took his young charges to see an old reservoir and noticed a commotion: a girl had drifted too far and couldn’t be found.
She was eventually dragged ashore, and Smith discovered a strong pulse.
When he went to start mouth-to-mouth resuscitation on the white girl, he heard a policeman yell, “She’s already dead!”
Smith realized the cop would rather see her die than see her saved by a Black man, so he came to a halt.
Smith and a Jewish friend were drawn to the racial activism of the day after graduating. In 1963, the two traveled to Washington to participate in a march. They were standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, where King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech.
Though he intended to become a veterinarian while attending graduate school in Alabama, his academic pursuits gave way to activism, and he was eventually assigned to a civil rights project.
Infuriated white supremacists set fire to his office building and tried to drive his car off a highway until he swung into a gas station full of Black customers and escaped his pursuers.
He moved to Washington in 1968 and began a career as a federal employee, establishing a national training program for primary care physicians that is still in operation today.
Smith retired in the 1990s. He served as an usher at the Washington National Cathedral, where he met presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Obama.
In 2006, the cathedral hosted his wedding to Neumann, an environmental activist and longtime federal worker.