Son of a Slave

Daniel Smith died on October 19, 2022. ( He was 90 and one of the last Americans who was born to a parent who had been a slave. His father was 70 when Daniel was born. While his father died when Daniel was only 6 years old, his father’s stories of bondage, whipping, and other human atrocities became embedded in his memory. But not in the way one might think. “We could never talk negatively about America in front of my father”, Daniel recalled. Daniel’s father also taught him the value of kindness.

Daniel, as a child, had a real fondness for dogs, due in part to a surrogate father who was a veterinarian. He learned to be an obedience trainer for dogs. He had hoped to be in the Army’s K-9 Corps but was denied because they weren’t accepting Black soldiers. He was able to serve as a medic in the Korean War.

Returning to the U.S., Daniel saved the lives of two people in separate incidents. The first was the rescue of a truck driver during a flood. The second involved a young white woman who he revived using mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. A police officer at the scene ordered Daniel to stop. He refused. It was the most racist experience he had encountered in his life.

Daniel graduated from college and trained to be a veterinarian. He devoted his career instead to civil rights. When he created an antipoverty program in the south, the church that gave him space was burned down. The local judge who helped him had 21 of his cows poisoned.

Daniel relocated to the Washington area and worked for federal agencies serving people in need. He retired in 1994 and became the head of leading U.S. Presidents to their seat in the U.S. National Cathedral.

We think of slavery as being a part of our distant past, but the life of Daniel Smith tells us how wrong that is. His life was one of an oral history of slavery from his father’s stories. To Daniel, slavery was personal as was the racism he experienced. But so was a love for our nation and genuine kindness. He had a reason to be resentful, but wasn’t. He had a reason to hate, but didn’t. He had a reason to be angry, but lived to support others. His life is one for all of us to admire.

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“Dare to reach out your hand into the darkness, and pull another hand into the light.”  – Norman Rice (Former Mayor of Seattle)

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