Remembering Daniel R. Smith, Sr.

Picture of Daniel R. Smith, Sr.
Daniel R. Smith, Sr.
Photo by: Jim Shannon

Daniel R. Smith, Sr.
Son of a Slave: A Black Man’s Journey in White America
By: Loretta Neumann

Believed to be the last person in the United States whose father was born enslaved during the Civil War, Daniel R. (Dan) Smith, Sr., was living proof that slavery is not distant history. He died October 19, 2022, at age 90;  His father, Abram (A.B.) Smith, 70 years old when Dan was born, taught him to work hard and carry himself well, even in difficult circumstances. After starting in his youth as an active young Black raised in a nearly all-white town in Connecticut, Dan served as a medic in the newly desegregated Army during the Korean War, dove into a flooding river to save a man’s life, graduated from a largely white college where he was elected student body president, attended Martin Luther King’s march on Washington in 1963 and two years later, as a Civil Rights activist in Alabama, was with Reverend King on the third Selma to Montgomery march.

In 1968 Dan moved with his family to work in Washington DC for the Office of Employment Opportunity, helping establish neighborhood health centers throughout the United States. Afterward, in the face of acute racial discrimination, he successfully started and led a major federal program at the National Institutes of Health – Area Health Education Centers – which he considered his crowning achievement and which is still operating today. He later worked on international health programs in South Africa and several other countries.

After retirement, Dan coordinated events for the dedication of the Korean War Memorial on the National Mall served as Head User for the Washington National Cathedral (escorting Presidents Bush, Clinton, Obama, and other dignitaries), and campaigned for local and Presidential candidates (Adrian Fenty, Muriel Bowser, Phil Mendelson, and Brandon Todd locally; Al Gore, John Kerry, Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and Joe Biden nationally). In 2006, Dan married Loretta Neumann, a long-time community activist in DC who, in 2022, received DCPL’s Lifetime Achievement Award in Historic Preservation.

For all the intersections he had with historical events, political leaders, and other luminaries. Dan was often called the “Black Forrest Gump.” His memoir, Son of a Slave: A Black Man’s Journey in White America, was completed a few weeks before he died.  It offers a compelling, first-hand account of the actions, policies, and people that have helped or hindered the United States to fulfill the promise that ‘all men are created equal.’

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