|My husand and me with Rev. Dr. James “Smitty” Smith
and his wife Louise
“Will you help me get my life story down on paper?” he asked.
I swallowed. How was I to answer? I was an aspiring writer and had a list of publishing credits to my name.
But I was also a 46 year old white woman raised in the Baltimore suburbs. How could I write the story of an 84 year old black man raised in Baltimore City during the Great Depression?
But Smitty’s twinkling eyes and smile were more than I could resist.
“Yes,” I answered. Smitty smiled. Little did I know I had just started an amazing adventure.
But it really pains me to be honest: I used to groan inside every February when “Black History Month” came around. The little girl in me used to think, Why isn’t there a white history month?
My oh my, but how that little girl has grown up!
I spent the last several months of Smitty Smith’s life listening to his stories. He became my own personal tutor in Black History. He brought it alive for me because it was his story. Here was Black History in the flesh and blood of a man I’d come to deeply respect.
Smitty told me about growing up in Baltimore’s Sandtown neighborhood, the same city but a different world from where my father grew up. Smitty told me how he’d earn a nickel after school erasing pencil marks from books passed on from the white school, so they could use them in Sandtown’s black school.
He described the street corner singers in his neighborhood. And how in 1936, Bill Kinney became Sandtown’s famous son singing with The Inkspots. Kinney was known as “the voice that made The Inkspots famous.”
I heard the story of when Smitty met Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “He had a personable way of looking in your eyes and made you feel like you’d been friends a long time.” Smitty sadly described being at a church ladies luncheon when the world learned King had been assasinated.
The day after President Obama was elected to office, Smitty reflected on the years when “coloreds were not allowed to have the good jobs, like being a policeman, fireman or garbage collector.”
Several years have passed since Smitty shared his stories with me before his death. (I’m now working on final revisions for his book “Mr. Nobody Smith: A Journey to Significance, A Legacyof Faith.”)
(For more information click http://www.lesliejpayne.com/ )
I think he would be pleased to know I’ve become a fan of Black History. I’ve read stacks of books, watched all sorts of movies, attended presentations, heard others’ stories, and researched on the Internet.
I’m still a white woman.
But I’m a whole lot wiser.