Smith was awarded, alongside Bill Clinton, in 2003 with the Civil Rights Museum’s Medal of Freedom award.
Here’s what you need to know…
1. Despite Her Accolades, She Was Refused Entry to Memphis State
Despite having numerous degrees in languages from Spelman College and Middlebury College, and being assistant professor of French at Prairie View University in Texas and at Florida A&M University, she was refused admission to a Memphis State doctoral program in 1957.
Her refusal, based solely on race, inspired Dr. Smith to join the NAACP.
Fifty years later, Dr. Smith received an honorary degree from the school.
2. She Quickly Rose in the NAACP Organization
After joining in 1957, Dr. Smith became executive secretary in 1962, one of the highest positions. She held that role until her retirement in 1995. Her goals were to end segregation in all its forms across the South, with a focus on Tennessee. The Civil Rights Library credits her role:
Smith was a major force in shaping and directing the work of this organization at the local and national level. In addition to her work with the NAACP, Smith received national recognition for her significant contributions to urban education.
3. She’s Known for “If You’re Black, Take It Back”
The most famous campaign that Dr. Smith organized was the “If You’re Black, Take It Back” initiative, which targeted stores in Memphis that refused to hire black people and integrate their workforces. Black people who had bought items at the store were encouraged to bring them back and state the segregation as the reason.
Department stores in Memphis, such as Gerber’s, did not allow black people to try on clothes at the store, but they were allowed to purchase.
4. She Was a Champion of Education
Throughout her career in the movement, Dr. Smith was most passionate about education. She served on the Memphis Board of Education, the first African-American to be elected to the board, and served two terms as president. In 1994, she was nominated by then-Tennessee Governor Ned McWherter to the Tennessee Board of Regents, which is responsible for governing the state’s colleges and universities.
5. She Married Another Civil Rights Legend
Born in the state in 1929, Dr. Smith married Dr. Vasco A. Smith Jr. (d. 2009) in 1955. He was the first black county commissioner in Memphis and a noted civil rights leader. Her husband is known with in civil rights circles in Memphis to helping to end movie theater segregation. The couple had one son, Vasco A. Smith III, born 1956.