Son Of Slave Connects Yesterday With Today

As the United States welcomes Barack Obama as its first African American president, many interpret the victory as a sign of racial progress. And for Daniel Smith, whose father was born a slave, the moment is especially significant. He discusses how his father's life shaped his own and what it means in the context of this historic presidential election.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this Tell Me More from NPR News. Coming up, Barack Obama has a poet to mark his inauguration. So do we. We hear from award-winning slam poet, Gayle Danley, in just a few minutes.

But first, Barack Obama's presidential inauguration is a landmark event for the entire country, but for many people it is the story of a people's rise from enslavement to the seat of a nation's power. Daniel Smith is one of the few Americans alive whose life bridges this historic moment. His father was born into slavery, and Smith has dedicated his life to helping people overcome what many consider to be the legacy of slavery.

During the early days of the civil rights movements, Smith worked as the executive director of an anti-poverty program in Alabama. In that job he endured threats from the Ku Klux Klan and an arson attack on the church that housed his program. He also accompanied Martin Luther King, Jr. at the historic 1965 civil rights march from Selma to Birmingham, and he is with us in our Washington, D.C. studios now. Mr. Smith, thank you so much for joining us.

Mr. DANIEL SMITH (Civil Rights Activist): My pleasure.

MARTIN: Just to clarify, just to do the math - I think a lot of people wonder, how is it possible that you could be the son of a person born into slavery? So if you would just...

Mr. SMITH: Yeah, I just check my birth certificate, and my father was age 70 when I was born. If you deduct 70 from 1932, that would make it 1862...

MARTIN: So, he was born into slavery...

Mr. SMITH: Oh, definitely. I was six years old when he died, and I really never knew him because he went to work at six o'clock in the morning and I was still sleeping. He came home eight o'clock at night and I was in bed. So the only time I saw him was on the weekends, but I did hear family conversations about slavery. And I don't know whether he himself was a victim in terms of the real problems, but there was active discussion about slavery in our house.

MARTIN: Do you remember any of those conversations?

Mr. SMITH: Definitely, yeah. I can remember a couple that stick with me very clearly is that one was that my father's father, they had just cooked a major Sunday meal, and the owner, I guess the slave owner, came down to the house and took all the food and took it back to his house. I never forgot that, and I'm very conscious about food today.

Another time, I remember the conversation very clearly, and they talked about one of the slaves had done something incorrectly or had told a lie, and the master came out and lined them all up and said that - let's just call him Johnny. Johnny, you're lying to me. And Johnny said, no, I'm not. It was in the wintertime in Virginia, and the slave master says, I'll teach you not to lie. And he made him stick - lick the wagon wheel, which was steel, and of course, when he pulled his tongue away from there, all the skin came off, so - off his tongue.

MARTIN: And he made everybody line up and watch this?

Mr. SMITH: Oh, yes. Definitely, yeah. And so, those sort of things that - two of the things that I remember very well.

MARTIN: What drew you into the civil rights movement?

Mr. SMITH: Well, actually, I had gone to school in New England and went to Tuskegee Institute, which is in Alabama, to go to school of veterinary medicine, but that was really the height of the civil rights movement, and I just got the calling. We were actually housed in a undergraduate dorm. And people were coming in, getting - they would plan to go up to Montgomery, Alabama and do some type of demonstration, and the kids would come back being bloody and beaten, there's blood on the floor in the hallways, and kids knocking by the door, come on, join us, join us. And so I really got the calling to leave the veterinary school.

And there was a program and a need for a director in Lawrence(ph) County, Alabama. And that's where I ran an anti-poverty program for Sargent Shriver. It was a basic adult migrant seasonal farmworkers' program. In short, we were teaching people - elderly people to read and write. It was very significant.

MARTIN: So, you have, obviously, a lot in common with Barack Obama in the sense that he was a community organizer, he was a person who had a bright professional future and, you know, chose to walk away from the more sort of conventional path of success to go into community organizing. I do have to ask, though - of course, your work is rooted in hope - if you ever thought you would see this day in your lifetime, an African-American become president of the United States?

Mr. SMITH: I think there's only one person in the world who ever thought they would live to see a black president, and I think that's Barack Obama. All my friends, all my family, no one believed that this country would accept a black man as president. Unbelievable. It's like one of the eight wonders of the world.

MARTIN: Can you even describe what it feels like to you reflecting on your unique history?

Mr. SMITH: It's so emotional. I cannot explain it. It's just that it gives you so much more faith in this country and the people who voted for him, and it's remarkable. Just incredible.

MARTIN: So, Tuesday, inauguration, he takes the oath of office. What about Wednesday, Thursday, Friday? What about, you know, going on into the future?

Mr. SMITH: Well, I equate this event with the four-minute mile. That was in 1954. The coaches and all the trainees would tell the track stars, you can't run the mile under four minutes. And no one could until Roger Bannister broke that. And the next week after he broke that, the record kept getting - and so it's now - it's really broken. And so the same way many black Americans who have felt that they were denied opportunity to achieve what they wanted to achieve because they were black I think can now look in a different direction. I mean, race for many black Americans can no longer be used as a crutch, if they used it for a crutch in the past.

MARTIN: And among the many interesting life experiences you have had, I understand that you will be ushering at the prayer breakfast at the National Cathedral the morning after the inauguration. Is that right?

Mr. SMITH: Yes, that's correct. As you know, I was a former head usher at the National Cathedral, and so I get called back for special events, and this is a state event, and so I will be ushering. And we are required to be there at 5:30 in the morning. So I will be there, and whatever role they want me to play, I'll be glad to play that.

MARTIN: But what will that be like? I mean, you've ushered many events with dignitaries. The Cathedral is a place where we have our presidents' memorial services, lie in state, important occasions of state, the prayer service after 9/11, so you're kind of an old hat at these things. But what do you think about that's going to be like?

Mr. SMITH: Well, I'm more interested - well, true, it's sort of old hat to me because I've seated President Bush and the Clintons and both Bushes and you know, interacted with them. And we've come to know the Clintons very well. But I think - I'm wondering how it's going to seem to the president - President Obama to be in this magnificent structure and speaking to the world about his faith and hope and dreams for this country and how he will shape his administration through hope and inspiration and through the word of God.

MARTIN: Daniel Smith is the son of a former enslaved American. He's a former civil rights activist himself. He is currently the president of an international export company out of Takoma Park, Maryland. And he was kind enough to join us in our Washington studios on the eve of this inauguration. Mr. Smith, thank you so much for speaking with us.

Mr. SMITH: You're welcome. My pleasure. Thank you.

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