By Liam Shannon
Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, over 150 years ago. It was so long ago that it seems impossible that someone alive in the 21st century could be the son of a former slave. Daniel R. Smith Sr. was born in 1932, the son of an enslaved person. His father, Abram Smith, who was born as the property of a white man, was 70 years old when Dan was born. He lived an extraordinary life, and on a rainy Friday afternoon at Springfield College, Smith’s widow, Loretta Neuman, shared his story through stifled tears.
Smith grew up in Winsted, Connecticut, and attended the Gilbert School. However, his upbringing was far from smooth sailing. At six years old, the waters quickly became rough when his father passed away. Because of this, his childhood was filled with poverty. . Smith worked for a veterinarian before and after school most days, trying to do anything to help his family.
Following high school, Smith was drafted to fight in the Korean War. Neumann recalled the many stories Smith would tell of the war, both comedic and somber. “The Korean War shows Dan’s leadership and courage,” said Neumann. She remembered Smith as a courageous opportunist, someone who took advantage of every opportunity he was given.
Smith enrolled at Springfield College following his service at 24 years of age. Despite among the few African-American students on Alden Street, he defied the odds and was elected student body president. Soon, Smith would walk across the stage with a degree in general studies, alongside minors in sociology and psychology. Following graduation, he served on the Springfield College board of trustees. His first professional job was as a social worker at the Norwich State Hospital in Norwich, Connecticut.
Amid the civil rights movement, Smith felt he needed to take action. This sparked him to drive down from Connecticut with his friend, Barry Fritz, to the March on Washington in Washington, DC. He listened to Martin Luther King Jr.’s empowering “I Have a Dream” speech.
Notwithstanding Smith’s journeys, he was an avid lover of dogs at his core. true passion was always to become a veterinarian. He left his job at Norwich State Hospital to attend the Tuskegee Veterinary Institute in Tuskegee, Alabama. Here, he was able to become heavily involved in the civil rights movement. Smith participated in the third Selma to Montgomery march. When he glanced over to his left shoulder, he was shocked at who he saw – it was his white English professor from Springfield,, Edward Simms. They chatted as they continued to march from Selma to Montgomery.
Smith got very involved in politics in the latter part of his career. He was appointed as the head usher at the Washington National Cathedral. He escorted many dignitaries of the U.S. government into religious sessions.
Smith retired in 1994 but still loved to work and serve others. He directed the Korean War Veterans Association in 1995. He then met Neuman and the two married at the Washington National Cathedral in 2006.
Smith and Neumann became heavily involved with democratic politics. They campaigned throughout the northeast for various democratic candidates. Smith supported Hillary Clinton in 2008 prior to her withdrawal from the race. Both of their support then turned to Barack Obama. Following his victory, Smith and Neumann were thrilled to attend the inauguration of the first African-American president in the history of the United States.
After the killing of George Floyd in May 2020, Smith and Neumann joined the Black Lives Matter Movement. “The nation seems to be regressing instead of progressing,” Smith said in an interview. The man who was almost run off the road by the Ku Klux Klan was now watching a very similar equality movement occur 50 years later.
Smith passed away a day over a year ago, on October 19, 2022. “Dan was a great storyteller; he would tell me stories and stories and stories,” Neumann said through slight tears. She felt she could not do him justice by retelling his experiences.
Although the son of a slave and having such direct ties to America’s greatest sin, Smith never hated anyone or felt angry towards anyone. “Be kind, we need more kindness,” Smith told America in an interview. Smith’s father always taught him to not be upset with where he came from; he pushed him to be great and kind. “Do great things [he said], and that is what has guided me throughout my life,” Smith wrote in his memoir. “The energy and the smile was electrifying,” Springfield College president Mary Beth Cooper recalled from her meeting with Smith. A somewhat somber kickoff to Springfield’s homecoming weekend, Smith’s legacy lives on at Springfield College while rippling throughout the nation. “Dan will always have a place here, as well as
you, Loretta; this is your home,” concluded President Cooper. Smith changed the lives of many and enjoyed every second of doing so.
Photo courtesy of Springfield College