When students in Dr. Alonzo Smith’s history class study segregation, they are getting the views of an accomplished historian who witnessed it firsthand.
“Washington was a real Jim Crow town,” says Dr. Smith, who grew up near Howard University and later lived in the Columbia Heights neighborhood of DC in the 1940s and ’50s. Today, he shares his experiences in classes in history and human rights.
His father was a pediatrician—the first African-American to be accepted in the American Academy of Pediatrics—and one of only two black doctors in all of Washington. At that time, Smith recalls, white doctors would not treat black children. Smith remembers his father’s office, which was in the basement of their home, as being perpetually full.
Smith’s mother worked in the office. Her light skin could “pass” as white, so he recalls his parents were sometimes mistaken as a mixed couple. At a restaurant in Virginia, he remembers people staring. “I noticed their eyes,” he says. “They would stare at my mother and stare at my father, then they would look at me.”
More than once his parents were pulled over while driving in the car. The police would look at his mother and ask, “Are you alright?”
In 1946 when they wanted to purchase a house in Columbia Heights, his mother toured and payed for the house, saying her husband was busy. Smith walked to elementary school in the neighborhood, which was 10 blocks away. There was a school right across the street from their house but it was for white children. He says the school for black children was so crowded, they attended in shifts.
He remembers some of his mother siblings were said to have “disappeared. That meant they lived as white people.” But his mother discouraged him from following their lead. “I want you to be proud of where you came from. I want you to get by on the basis of your brain and your education,” she told him.
That’s exactly what Smith did. He later attended Georgetown Day School, the first racially integrated school in the District. He had previously been rejected by Sidwell Friends, where the head of the school told Smith’s parents school policy was not to take “American Negros.”
Later, Smith earned a bachelor’s degree from Georgetown University, a master’s from Howard University, and a doctorate from UCLA. In addition to his career in the classroom, Smith worked for many years at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, curating an exhibit titled Separate Is Not Equal: Brown v. Board of Education, that coincided with the 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s school desegregation decision.
Professor Sara Ducey, director of the Paul Peck Humanities Institute, says these experiences are a tremendous resource to both students and faculty at the College. “Alonzo and I participated in the MC-Smithsonian Faculty Fellowship Program together in 2010 considering Museums at a Crossroads: Engaging a ‘Post-Racial’ Society. Alonzo contributed so much to the group’s discussions and exploration of the theme. His research, his previous work as a curator at the National Museum of American History—together with his life experience—brought such richness and reality to our fellowship and we continue to collaborate on opportunities for programming here at the College.”
Professor Greg Malveaux, the College’s study abroad coordinator, agrees. “I have traveled with him in Cuba, as a faculty leader of a program in Senegal and The Gambia, and soon, to London. His open-mindedness, intelligence, and inquisitiveness of the origins and history of people, and their nations, has brought immeasurable inspiration and goodwill to those around him. He is the ultimate American Ambassador, educator, and explorer.”
Back on campus and reflecting on today’s reality, Smith says he has not been surprised by recent events, including the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement. “What surprised me was the depth of continuing racism. Even me, who had not only lived it, but who spent my life teaching about it in the classroom! I underestimated the nature of racism and the resilience of racism.”
Smith says a lot of the new writing on race emphasizes the extent to which racism has become embedded in our culture. “Without using the old bad words, we now have a whole lot of new code words. They talk about hard work, individualism, getting off welfare.”
Still, in spite of it all, Professor Smith is hopeful for the future. He says racism is not “just an American problem. What I find optimistic is that we is that we live in a global village and that problems of a group in one country are everybody’s problems, and I think in the long run, that’s the basis for solving it.”