88-Year Old Daniel Smith, Son Of Slave, Tells His Story

88-Year Old Daniel Smith, Son Of Slave, Tells His Story

Daniel Smith, 88, is the son of a slave. His father, Abram Smith, was enslaved as a child. Now, Daniel is telling his family’s story. Photo: Daniel Smith at Virginia’s Camp Pickett during Army basic training in 1952. (Family photo)

Daniel Smith, 88 , is the living son of a slave — a historical rarity. Growing up, Smith heard stories of the whipping post, lynching trees and the wagon wheel passed down from his father.

His father, Abram Smith, spoke of life in Virginia, where he had been born into slavery on a plantation during the Civil War. He was a child laborer after the war, The Washington Post reported.

According to the 1870 census, Abram Smith was “a boy laborer.” With nowhere to go, many newly freed slaves remained where they were and continued to be mistreated. 

Earlier this month, a sweeping survey of more than 50,000 people’s DNA was unveiled. The research uses the enduring genetic legacy of the transatlantic slave trade to illuminate its atrocities, The Smithsonian reported.

The study was published in the American Journal of Human Genetics. It layers genetic data with historical records detailing enslaved Africans’ place of abduction and eventual destination in the Americas, The New York Times reported.

Smith’s father lived through the traumas of slavery, until slaves were emancipated. Long after leaving Massies Mill, Va., Abram Smith moved up North as a young man in his 20s. He later married a woman who was decades younger than him and fathered six children. Daniel was the fifth, born in 1932 when Abram Smith was 70. Daniel has one other sibling — Abe, 92 — still alive.

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Daniel’s father died in 1938. Daniel created his own history. He was a medic in the Korean War and a hometown hero who rescued a man from a flood. Of course, he experienced violence and racism. While working as a foot soldier in the fight for civil rights, he was chased on a dark road by white supremacists in Alabama. Smith was there when a young John Lewis roused the crowd at the March on Washington and linked arms with activists in Selma as they marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

Just before the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., Daniel Smith moved to the Washington, D.C. area. He and his first wife raised their two children in Bethesda, Md. He became a federal worker promoting health and education and fighting poverty. He retired in 1994. By 2006 he had remarried again. His second wife, Loretta Neumann, was white.

Even though Abram Smith spent his youth enslaved and later worked as a janitor in a factory, he still had hope for the country. “I remember my father and mother saying ‘It’s a free country. You can do anything you want, you can be anything you want,’ and they believed it,” Smith said.

And even though his father worked for a few dollars a day, Abram Smith ran a strict household. His children had to be the hardest workers, have the best manners, and be the brightest, too. When the siblings asked why they were so superior, their parents replied, “Because you are the children of A.B. Smith.” Their father forbade them to play with some poor Black children in town. “We were poor as church mice, but we were better because my father said we were better,” Daniel Smith recalled.   

There was a reason for Abram Smith’s strictness. Slavery was still a deep memory for him and he passed down the stories to his kids. Daniel remembers one in particular involving a wagon wheel.

When the slave master accused a man on the plantation of an unspecified offense, and the man denied it, the owner said, “‘You’re lying to me,’ and had the man and his whole family line up in the winter in front of a wooden wagon wheel,” Smith said. The slave owner ordered the man to kneel and lick the wheel’s metal rim. His tongue stuck to the wheel. He was only able to get loose by pulling away and losing part of his tongue. 

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“We just listened, and whatever came out of his mouth, that’s what we heard,” Daniel Smith said of his father’s stories.

From his father’s stories, Daniel said he understood racism as a child. As an adult, he experienced it and fought against it. And now, he said he sees the spirit for civil rights again with the Black Lives Matter protests. 

Daniel Smith said he feels society under Trump has gone backward — back toward slavery “almost to the point where it could happen again.”