Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Telescope

December 21, 2013

Local educator took different path on the road to racial equality

BLUEFIELD — When she was growing up and started going to school, Barbara Thompson Smith attended the old Lawson Street School not far from her Clarke Street home. By the time she entered fourth grade, Smith had to travel to Stinson School, but her father — the late Kenneth Lee Thompson — found a way for her to get to school without traveling the streets.

“My father made a path from our house through the woods to the school,” Smith said. “After my brothers and sisters started attending Stinson School, we could walk home for lunch every day. After Stinson School, I went to Genoa Junior High and then finished at Park Central High School. I didn’t attend an integrated school until I went to Bluefield State College.”

Following her father’s lead, Smith has always found a different path to confront the challenges she has faced. The path she has chosen hasn’t always been the easiest one to follow, but through personal integrity and uncompromising tenacity, she has served her family, her profession, her community and her nation to the best of her ability.

“I really wanted to play a saxophone when I went across town to Genoa,” Smith, the oldest of eight children born to Gracie and Kenneth Thompson. “Winston Q. Jones had a band at Genoa and I really wanted to be part of it. Dad was a yard brakeman with the Norfolk & Western Railway. He said that he would go talk to a man at work about a saxophone for me. The next day when he came back from work, he brought home a trumpet.

“I learned just enough to be able to be able to play in the band,” Smith said. “My brother Leo wanted to play the drums and he could beat on anything. By the time the third one in line came along — Gloria — he found a clarinet. I only wanted to be in the band so I could get into the football games for free. By the time Connie — the fourth one — came up, she wanted to be a cheerleader. When I found out that the cheerleaders got into games for free too, I started being a cheerleader.”

The Thompson family has always been close, but also practical. “I really wanted to be an undertaker,” Smith said. “When I graduated from Park Central in 1967, I really wanted to go to undertakers school, but dad told me he only had enough money for me to go to Bluefield State.” She said that her father told her that if she would attend BSC for two years, he would reconsider her request to go to embalmer’s school.

“I looked around and saw that after I was in college, Leo would be following the next year, then Gloria, Connie, Loretta, Doug, Toni and Carlton,” Smith said. “I figured that I may as well just decide to go on and go to college at Bluefield State.”

It proved to be a fortuitous move for Smith. During her days at Genoa, one of her teachers — her Chemistry and Physics teacher Allan B. Connolly — “took a liking to me,” she said. “I had done an experiment using goldfish, did the research and had great notes. I won competition in the county and state and Mr. Connolly thought I could win the big prize.”

On the day before she and Connolly were to travel to Kentucky for the next level of competition, Smith put her goldfish in the basement of the school so they would be ready to go the next day. Unfortunately, a cold snap swept through the area. “There came a snow storm and everything froze — even my goldfish,” Smith said. “I had all my notes and still wanted to go, but Mr. Connolly said it wouldn’t be worth going if my fish were all dead. I didn’t get to go.”

But something happened a few years later that helped Smith find a new path in life. “One day, we were all sitting at the corner window of Park Central High School and Mr. Connolly talked about his first try to be elected to the city board of directors,” Smith said. “The next time he ran, he won. When he called me to tell me he had won, his voice was so high because he was excited. I told him I already knew he had won because of his voice.”

Allan B. Connolly was the first African American elected to the Bluefield city board of directors. Almost from the time Bluefield was founded in 1889, about one-quarter of the city’s population was black. The N&W Railroad recruited black laborers to lay track and work as yard brakemen. The state established BSC in 1895 because of the concentration of African Americans living in Bluefield and in the surrounding coal communities. In spite of the number of potential voters, the city had no black representatives in municipal government until Connolly won the election and took the oath of office on Aug. 5, 1969.

Smith said she entered Bluefield State in the fall of 1967 when campus unrest was a daily reality for her — primarily because of the transformation of the historically black college into an integrated college. “There were all those sit-ins and demonstrations back then,” Smith said. “I avoided all of that. It wasn’t for me. I would skip classes and come home early to avoid trouble. That’s why I didn’t graduate until 1972. It took me five years to get through school.”

Smith didn’t avoid the more overt acts of civil disobedience because she wasn’t committed to the cause of racial equality. On the contrary, her mentor Mr. Connolly had taken the time to study the situation and found a way to get elected to the city board. According to Smith, when Connolly lost his bid for office in 1965, he went to the Mercer County Courthouse and studied the voting patterns of the city.

“Mr. Connolly was well respected in the white community too,” Smith said. “He had waited tables at the Bluefield Country Club for years, and he was well known in the white community. Mr. Connolly, Kemper West and P.A. Saunders all worked at the country club and were well known.”

After he lost his bid for election, Connolly recruited Smith and other young people to help educate the voters in the black community that they could cast a “single shot” vote for him, and not water down the vote by voting for him and four other white candidates. “People thought if they didn’t vote for five candidates, their ballot would be rejected, but just voting for one candidate wouldn’t get them disqualified.”

Connolly was elected in 1969 and earned re-election in 1974. The flaw in the system that Connolly discovered would ultimately serve as one of the main arguments that the NAACP used to change the voting system in Bluefield back into a district system, where minority candidates could run successfully for election.

“In the little talks we had with Mr. Connolly, he said that with all the urban renewal taking place in the mid-1960s, nobody poor would have any place to stay,” Smith said. “He said there was open land across from Bluefield State where they could build housing. He said that you got a fire department on the North side and the city offices on Bland Street. He thought those functions should be brought together.

“The one thing that he was most concerned about was that you had one pretty good hospital for white people and another small hospital on Scott Street for blacks,” Smith said. “He thought there ought to be just one hospital for everyone.” Of course, in 1973, Tiffany Manor provided housing for low income people; in 1976, the city consolidated its police, fire and city offices at the municipal building and in 1980, Bluefield Community Hospital opened.

After she graduated from BSC, Smith used the example she learned from her parents and from Connolly to meet challenges. After about seven years of teaching mathematics in McDowell County schools, a confrontation with one of her students at Elkhorn Elks Junior High School and the subsequent response by her principal who said he wouldn’t take action against the belligerent student prompted Smith to say: “I want your job.” It wasn’t the principal’s job at that school that she wanted, but rather an administrative position where she could make decisions that would benefit students as well as classroom teachers.

In order to accomplish her goal, Smith enrolled in the West Virginia University College of Graduate Studies and majored in school administration. At the time, she and her husband, Dennis Smith — who is now retired as a locomotive engineer with the Norfolk Southern Railway — had a son, Edmond Smith Jr. Still, she quietly persevered, earned her graduate degree, and while still at Elkhorn and later Northfork, Kimball and Mt. View, agreed to serve as “acting assistant principal” at the teacher pay level.

She received her masters degree in 1990, worked as dean of women at Mt. View, and never told her superiors that she had attained a degree that would entitle her to move into an administrative position. In 1997 when McDowell County Schools closed Bradshaw, the county board of education opened up an assistant principal position. Smith applied, but another candidate was the school superintendent’s pick for the job.

Smith said she filed a grievance at the school that was denied. She said she appealed that decision to the superintendent, where it was also denied. She took her appeal to the state, and when the examiner asked if she had any proof that she had served five years as an acting assistant principal, she reached into her pocketbook and pulled out all of the West Virginia Secondary Schools Athletic Commission cards that she had collected through the years for doing extra work at sporting events.

“All of the cards had my name on the front and acting assistant principal stamped on them,” Smith said. “The examiner said: ‘Mrs. Smith, I’m sorry you came this far.’ Some time later, I received a thick package. Dennis brought it in to me. I read the first page and learned that I won. I won with back pay. It was a sweet and sour situation. I made my way through all of it and I give all of the credit to God.”

Smith served as assistant principal at Mt. View for a while and went to be principal to work as principal at Northfork Elementary until the school closed. She moved to Sandy Huff for a time, but in early 2005, her sister, Connie Pannell, was diagnosed with cancer. At first, Smith tried to continue working, but eventually, she decided to retire with 33 years of service. However, when she went to file the paperwork, her representative said she had more than 2 years of unused sick time, so she could retire at a full benefit. As a result, she could devote additional time to her sister’s care during the last 18 months of her life. Connie Pannell died on Dec. 10, 2006.

Earlier this year, she decided that perhaps, she could make a difference in city government. “We don’t have money,” she said. “I promised myself that I would only take $500 to run for office, and I only spent $385 of it.” Just as Allan Connolly did in his time, Smith has shared her thoughts about what the city needs with her fellow board members. “I don’t know if I should say those in public yet,” she said.

During her time in school administration and as a teacher, she stood her ground on behalf of students — black or white — and sometimes her positions were unpopular among her peers. Still, she remained unfrittered and unbowed.

“When I found out I won, I told Dennis, and all he said was: ‘OK. Let’s get this party started.’ I said, OK. and that’s where we are.”

— Contact Bill Archer at barcher@bdtonline.com

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