The prestigious St. Marks School of Texas in Dallas has announced the establishment of a award in my name, The Lee S. Smith ’65 Courage and Honor Distinguished Alumni Award. The real tribute for this great legacy and honor belongs to my parents and teachers, the people without whom none of the amazing things I have done would have ever happened.
My parents, neighbors and teachers were the generation on the front line of desegregating the near South Dallas neighborhoods during the ’40s Black migration out of Freedman Town (North Dallas). It wasn’t easy. My generation was their hope for a better future. Everywhere you heard words you can’t get out of your head, such as the words “Get your education, they can’t take that away from you.”
I grew up in historic South Dallas, born and raised on Tanner Street – four doors off Oakland Avenue (now Malcom X Boulevard) – in a neighborhood they call Wheatley Place. It was bound by Oakland Avenue, Pennsylvania Avenue, the Trunk Tracks and Wheatley Elementary School – just a stone’s throw from Fair Park. We also had Phyllis Wheatley Elementary, named for a freed slave kidnapped from Senegal who became a famous poet, and James Madison High School, renamed from Forest Avenue High after the White flight was complete, so that Black graduates would not have the same high school name on their diplomas and job applications as the earlier White graduates.
Outside of the Black areas of Dallas, unless you were the help, there was a strict racial divide. There were a few downtown stores you could go to, that had separate entrances, water fountains and bathrooms. You could shop at the Kress and the H.L. Green five and dime, but you could only eat at a separate basement lunch counter. You could watch a movie at the Majestic Theater downtown, but you had to go in the back service entrance and ride an elevator up to the separate fourth balcony.
I started high school in September 1961. That was also the time Dallas changed. Over a quiet weekend that same September, in the blink of an eye, the White Citizens Council that controlled Dallas decided that Dallas public accommodation businesses were going to open for business on Monday integrated – businesses yes, but not schools. It turned out there were a lot of good people, a “White liberal underground” if you will, who welcomed integration and stepped forward. But make no mistake, there was no shortage of diehard racists that would have no part of it.
At Madison, you heard the words “There’s no school like James Madison,” “Mighty Trojans!” We had great teachers at Madison, teachers that nurtured, encouraged and challenged us. Teachers like Mildred Finch, Van Buren McClellan and Reginald Carrington took pride in us and made us proud. They grounded us with a sense of self-respect, confidence and support that was a protective jacket to take everywhere we went. And I did. When we sang, We Shall Over Come and we meant it. When we said, “I am Somebody,” there was no doubt about it.
By my Junior year, I was a stellar student: president of the National Honor Society, Trojan Awards winner, ROTC Drill Team member, Alpha Phi Alpha Scholastic Award winner, Dallas Science Fair, NASA and the US Air Force Award winner and an Eagle Scout.
St. Mark’s had considered integration but believed there were no Black students qualified. It turned out, the head of the Science Department at St. Mark’s, Christi Drago, and my science teacher at Madison, Van Buren McClellan, had become unlikely friends. No doubt from McClellan’s pride in his Madison students, Drago offered that the St. Mark’s Summer Science Institute he headed along with Ted Oviat, was not bound by any segregation rules. Drago offered that if McClellan had students he wanted to send there, he could waive tuition. Two of us went.
One day, out of nowhere, Drago asked me to take the St. Mark’s entrance exam, saying he was curious how I would test against the White students St. Mark’s admits. Finch, my Madison math teacher, frequently had us take national exams to see how we would test against White students. I doubt Drago admitting me to summer school, and certainly having me sit for the entrance exam, was exactly authorized. Unknown to me, Drago presented the trustees with my exam score and portfolio of accomplishments. They decided this was the time, and the headmaster asked if I would transfer to St. Marks with tuition paid by an anonymous patron. I did.
Going from a segregated school to a nationally top ranked preparatory school was challenging, and at times physically threatening. Not unlike September 1961, my White soon to be classmates were unaware and unprepared to be equals with a Black person. And not unlike September 1961, it turned out there were good people there who were glad to see me, and there were die hard racists there that would have no part of it. It wasn’t easy. There were occasions when I was “sent home” for my safety. Growing up in South Dallas had prepared me to compete with the best. And I did. I integrated and became the first Black graduate of St. Mark’s School of Texas.
From St. Mark’s, I graduated from Harvard University in 1969, where I was the first Black managing editor of Harvard Yearbook. I designed and illustrated the national college recruiting publications College and The Black Student and The Black Student on the White Campus. After Harvard, I earned a law degree from the University of Washington, and spearheaded litigation in the Washington Supreme Court against the Bar Association, that led to exponential increase in Blacks admitted to practice law in Washington State.
I returned to Texas to become the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Chief Regional Civil Rights Attorney responsible for enforcement of Federal civil rights laws in Texas and the four surrounding states. I later spearheaded the legal case against the University of Texas and Texas A&M that led to removal of the “separate but equal” provision in the Texas Constitution and codified perpetual allocation of a share of the multibillion-dollar Permanent University Fund to HBCU Prairie View A&M University. I heard the words.
SOURCE- Dallas Examiner