and His Freedom-Fighting Peers’ Enduring Light
Smith Recently Honored at Ashe’s Maafa Ceremony
by Don Paul
Jerome Smith of New Orleans is 78 now. He is still six feet, four inches tall, though slightly stooped and tilted due to beatings that he took as a nonviolent demonstrator for Civil Rights. One set of injuries, the most serious, from brass-knuckled blows to his and other Freedom Riders’ heads by a mob in McComb, Mississippi on November 29, 1961, left Smith with lifelong headaches. He wears kufi skullcaps and shirts of white or azure-blue. His eyes need regular dilation, but his gaze is typically frank, searching, patient and kindly.
The creases in his face speak to a wealth of experiences. He remains a director of the New Orleans’ Tremé Center and he particularly focuses on teaching young people culture and traditions. He has had the nickname “Big Duck” for decades. It comes from children of the Tremé neighborhood following behind him as if he were a big duck.
Smith was 2017’s honored elder—this year’s Griot—at the Ashé Cultural Center’s Maafa ceremonies on the weekend before the 4th of July. Carol Bebelle and Luther Gray of the Ashé cited Smith’s ongoing service to communities of New Orleans. They said his work began when Smith was himself a young man, and they said he risked his life in New Orleans and elsewhere in the Deep South over years of collective struggle.
Those who attended the Ashé ceremonies on Friday night, June 30, and Saturday morning, July 1, learned that Smith had been beaten at least 12 times by mobs or police. Smith joined the New Orleans’ chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality when he was a 19-year-old student at Southern University of New Orleans. The core of CORE were a few dozen students: Rudy Lombard and Joyce Taylor of Xavier, Oretha Castle, Julia Aaron, Ruth D’aspenza, William Harper and Smith of SUNO; David Dennis and Archie Allen of Dillard; Lenny Goldfinch, William Harrell and Hugh Murray of Tulane; Doris Castle, Doratha “Dodie” Smith-Simmons, Matt “Flukie” Suarez, Issac Reynolds, George Raymond, Thomas Valentine, Don Hubbard, Sandra Nixon-Thomas, sisters Patricia and Carlene Smith, Betty Daniels, George Raymond, Margaret Leonard, and the three Thompson sisters: Jean, Alice and Shirley. Their actions and courage were fundamental to the progress of the United States’ Civil Rights Movement from 1960 onward. Along with the Consumers’ League and the local chapter of the NAACP, they first boycotted stores that failed to hire or serve Blacks along Dryades Street. They moved to sit-ins along Canal Street—at Woolworth’s and then McCrory’s department-stores in September 1960. They persisted in their sit-ins and picketing for more than two years. The late Rudy Lombard once called their group “courageous to the bone.” They had “a certain confidence,” he said, “because they came out of a culture that was so rich. They knew that everything that was unique about the city could be traced to the Black presence.”
Dodie Smith-Simmons remembered: “New Orleans’ CORE people were from low-income, working-class families. We saw something that had to be done, did it and went on to something else.”
Their actions moved outside of New Orleans and they were relentless. They joined Freedom Riders testing new federal desegregation laws across the U.S. South. They rode from Washington, DC into Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Tennessee and they and a new Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee group in Nashville, Tenn., refused to be daunted or turned around. They refused airplane rides offered by Attorney General Robert Kennedy. On November 29, 1961 five from New Orleans, Julia Aaron, George Raymond, Dodie Smith-Simmons, Smith and Tom Valentine, tried to be served in the Whites-only section of the bus station in McComb, Miss. A mob met them with brass-knuckles and baseball-bats. Still they persisted.
Their “safe houses” in New Orleans were the healing and teaching refuges for northern students, Black and White, who were venturing into campaigns elsewhere in the racist south or recovering from their beatings in such campaigns. The Castle sisters’ family house at 917 N. Tonti, near the Lafitte Housing project, and the Thompson sisters’ house at 1923 Tupelo in the Lower 9th Ward, became bases.
Norma Libson from Philadelphia, Penn., was among those welcomed. She told journalist Katy Reckdahl in 2001: “One of the things we learned was how to hold ourselves in case we got beaten. You had to curl up in a fetal position because you didn’t want your insides to be clubbed. And you put your head down with your arms over your head so that your arms might be broken but your head won’t split open.” Libson stayed at the Thompson sisters’ Tupelo Street home, where someone was always cooking despite a parade of visitors and a phone that rang non-stop, she said. “I still love them,” Libson said.
Treated by specialists in New York City for the traumatic, blinding injuries to his head, Smith met Lorraine Hansberry, James Baldwin, Marlon Brando, Harry Belafonte, Frank Sinatra, Lena Horne, and many more show business stars while there. He was with Baldwin, Belafonte, author Kenneth Clark, Hansberry, Horne, and actor Rip Torn among others gathered by Baldwin for a meeting with Attorney General Robert Kennedy at a Kennedy family apartment on Central Park South on May 24, 1963. Smith began to weep at this meeting. According to James Baldwin, Jerome began to stammer as he spoke out. He told the United States’ Attorney General, “I’ve seen you guys [from the Justice Department] stand around and take notes while we’re being beaten.”
Lorraine Hansberry backed up Jerome, saying “You’ve got a great many very, very accomplished people in this room, Mr. Attorney General. But the only man who should be listened to is that man over there. If you can’t understand what this young man is saying, then we are without any hope at all because you and your brother are representatives of the best that a White America can offer. And if you are insensitive to this, then there’s no alternative except our going in the streets … and chaos”.
The next month on June 11, 1963, President John Kennedy, asked for airtime on ABC, CBS, and NBC for an address on Civil Rights opposed by all of his Cabinet except for his brother Robert. “We are confronted primarily with a moral issue,” he told the nation. “It is as old as the scriptures and is as clear as the American Constitution. The heart of the question is whether all Americans are to be afforded equal rights and equal opportunities, whether we are going to treat our fellow Americans as we want to be treated.”
The struggle, of course, continued. In September 1963 four young girls died in a Birmingham, Ala., church that was firebombed. In June 1964, three workers for Blacks’ voter-registration in Neshoba, Miss., were followed from jail by the police chief and other Klansmen, kidnapped and murdered. And the car they were driving, a 1963 Ford Fairlane station wagon that Smith purchased in upstate New York from a friend of Lena Horne’s and that was later delivered to Mississippi to be used by CORE workers there, was found burned out and abandoned.
Smith wrote in a piece for AARP magazine in 2011 that “Our people always put themselves up for struggle. Many of the unknown paid a tremendous price. It was all about our collective strength. The collective thing was much more powerful than Dr. King, much more powerful than whatever my humble contributions were.”
Still, his humble contributions continued. In 1968 Smith founded Tambourine and Fan in New Orleans’ Tremé to instill in young people important culture, history, and tradition. He continues to teach classes modeled on those of the Freedom Schools during the 1964 Freedom Summer. Children in the Center recite lyrics of “Strange Fruit”, the names of the four young girls killed in the Birmingham, Alabama Church-fire of 1963, the Neville Brothers’ “Sister Rosa”, and chants of Mardi Gras Indians who will “not bow down.”
Honored at Ashé
On the night of June 30, 2017, accepting his Griot award as part of this year’s Maafa ceremonies at the Ashé Power House, Smith spoke of subjects and in ways that reached far and deep. He spoke like a mystic oracle. Smith received his Griot’s walking-stick from the Ashé’s Carol Bebelle and Luther Gray at conclusion of a stirring series of Maafa-oriented performances.
The Oyo Oyu Dance Troupe from Santiago, Cuba enacted a ritual of Loas’ courtship with drummers Alexey Marti and Bill Summers. The poets Sunni Patterson and Ariel Kenyatta and the rapper Dee-1 spoke poignantly and with sharp points about abuses of Black people from colonial Kenya to present-day news. The singer Tonya Boyd Cannon combined Gospel and Reggae to a standing-room-only, sit-yourself-down-on-the-floor crowd who rose clapping and dancing their feet.
Smith spoke about his past and children’s present and future in New Orleans. He remembered the “speech-impediment” that had kept him “in a prison” for much of his own childhood. He said that this impediment made him be quiet, listen, and think. Smith said that because he couldn’t speak a voice grew inside his head and he became freed from “the walls” of written language. His handicap compelled and empowered illumination for the boy. He praised his mother’s wisdom and her belief in him. “One day—one day, Jerome, you will speak, and all that you’re storing up will come out for you. Be patient and keep learning. You are not dumb, Jerome. You are gaining knowledge.” Smith said his mother told him that the truths gained within his empowering silence were “worth more than any dictionary” and that “there are no words in that Dictionary equal to what you have to tell.” Then, the next day, his mother bought him the entire set of ‘the Great Books of the World’.”
While being honored at Ashe, Smith said “the light in children’s eyes” was the most important thing in the world. He said he sees that light every day when he talks with children in the Tremé Community Center and as they all walk and spend time before statues in New Orleans’ Louis Armstrong Park. He tells them about Louis and about Mahalia Jackson, Buddy Bolden, Sidney Bechet, and Big Chief Tootie Montana, and they understand the greatness of their immediate ancestors and their African ancestors and they begin to clap, exclaim and ask questions.
“They’re seeing what’s already in them. Like my mother said, we can’t let that light go out. That light is the most important thing for our future.”
Smith says that the Tremé is in danger of losing that light. “All of New Orleans is coming under what is called “diversity”—or whatever you want to call it—and it’s taking away the Black voice in New Orleans. We’re losing our voice and our own light and it’s not just in New Orleans. —or whatever you want to call it—and it’s taking away the Black voice in New Orleans. We’re losing our voice and our own light and it’s not just in New Orleans. We’re losing that voice and light to this “gentrification” and it’s not just in New Orleans. We’re losing our voice and our light to this “technology” and everywhere people talking to each other through screens and getting their knowledge from screens and not from each other and what each of us know in our own self.”