Before Charles F. Smith Jr., Professor Emeritus in the Lynch School of Education, was born, his mother, born herself to the child of a slave, stood in the kitchen and heard a voice.
“Julia,” the voice announced, “your child will meet with leaders around the world.”
In many ways, that mysterious declaration has come true.
An undergraduate period at Bowling Green in the ’50s, and then as a teaching fellow at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, were filled with what he calls “goodwill humanitarian missions” around the world.
Though he was very poor, Smith was able to undertake these international humanitarian missions through the charity of those who had the desire and funds to give back, but not the time. They would support him financially to serve in their place.
Upon hearing of a mission to Jamaica as a freshman at Bowling Green, he solicited donations from nearby community groups to fund the journey.
Upon arriving in Jamaica, Smith met Sir Hugh Foot, then Royal Governor of Jamaica, appointed by King George VI. Sir Foot would have an outstanding impact on the path of his life. He became both a mentor and an advocate, returning to Europe and telling everyone of a young American named Chuck Smith.
Soon, Smith began receiving humanitarian invitations from across the Atlantic.
One mission found him in Praunheim, just outside Frankfurt, Germany, in 1953, working with disabled German veterans. While there, he also worked to find housing for girls, ages 11 through 16, who had been left utterly alone by World War II.
“We knew, then, that we would be the leaders of the next generation,” Smith said.
The work placed him alongside young German men, his age, all getting to know each other. Building that sort of goodwill between former adversaries was integral in those times according to Smith, in a world still rebuilding from the most devastating war in history.
“We had beaten the Germans, there was no question of that,” Smith said. “But we had not learned to live together as allies.”
He considers the relationships he formed with the young Germans he met and worked alongside, the first post-war generation, to be the brick-and-mortar of international diplomacy. Smith believes today’s divisions could be healed by similar talks—the best way to find solutions is by joining forces and getting to know one another.
Another mission brought him in the Cameroons on a project called Operation Crossroads Africa, in 1958. Because the country was then an imperial property of France, this humanitarian mission put him face-to-face with legendary French statesman Charles de Gaulle.
He asked de Gaulle why the French were torturing the Cameroonians. De Gaulle responded, “The French do not torture,” to which Smith responded, “Well, they do. It’s happening right down the road from where I’m living.”
De Gaulle then told him that it must have been “some zealous sergeant.”
Incensed at this encounter, Smith traveled to the United Nations immediately after his return to the United States and filed a petition for Cameroonian freedom.
“I highly recommend it,” Smith said of these missions, some of which formed the basis of what would later become the Peace Corps.
“You want to rub elbows with a diversified group of people who know who you are and what you’ve experienced.”
Smith considers it all part of his lifelong quest to give back.
“I have drank the water of six continents. Each has structures that I have built,” said Smith, “There was a 10-year period, probably eight of which I spent out of the country.”
He met with Eleanor Roosevelt, and was selected by former president John F. Kennedy to serve on a commission addressing minority education.
“It was somewhat selfish, because I gained more than I gave. Giving just makes you feel good.
“I have had a very, very enjoyable life,” Dr. Smith said.
After graduate school he spent several years as a professor at Michigan State, which lead to a job interview at Boston University. When visiting, however, he felt that something required his attention west, at Boston College.
“I thought, ‘Let’s see what’s going on over there,’” Smith said.
He met with Rev. Charles F. Donovan, S.J., then serving as dean of faculties.
“That was the first job interview.”
He was offered an open position in the Graduate School of Social Work (GSSW).
Smith recalls there being “maybe one other” black faculty member on campus at the time. The sense of isolation was tremendous. He immediately found that there were many doors on campus closed to him, both literally and figuratively.
“The most devastating thing for minorities is isolation,” Smith said. “You don’t push too much because you don’t want to be rejected.”
He recalled one specific incident early in his tenure at BC to illustrate this divide.
Tired of eating his lunch in the car, the young professor decided to visit the faculty dining hall in McElroy Commons. He purchased his lunch at the counter and walked, “as one does, with one hand on each side of the tray,” and looked around for an open seat.
He approached two professors in Lynch that he recognized.
As Smith came close, one of the professors looked up and without missing a beat, barked “Don’t you have any friends here?”
“I have been here for 50 years,” he began, “if you had seen what I had seen—walked in my shoes…” He trailed off.
An internationally celebrated figure who was repeatedly distinguished for his social work never experienced alienation as strong as that which he encountered at BC.
At a 2016 event conducted by the BC Association of Retired Faculty, Smith sat in a room with more than a dozen former professors and declared that he considered each one of them a colleague of his, but he that did not know what they considered him.
They just looked at him.
Smith has been waiting for more than a year to hear from any of them.
“I have been here for 50 years, and in that time, Boston College has been Boston College,” said Smith.
Former University President Rev. J. Donald Monan, S.J. even staged public appearances with Smith around campus to alleviate the racial animosity directed towards one of his only black faculty members. They would eat lunch together in full view of the campus.
“I felt sorry for him,” Smith said of Monan. “He wanted to help me, but he couldn’t.”
Nonetheless, 28 years later, he retired as BC’s first tenured black faculty member.
Despite his long personal struggle against the racism of others, Smith still believes in solutions.
In a 2016 lecture he gave at the GSSW titled “High roads, low roads and in between,” Smith decried the language with which we discuss race in the United States.
Smith’s granddaughter, teaching overseas in Taiwan on a Fulbright Scholarship was referred to by her students as, “my chocolate teacher.”
Not “black” and “white,” each with its prescriptive connotations, but “chocolate and vanilla,” a far more productive racial discourse in Smith’s eyes.
“If you are this color,” Smith said in the lecture, holding up a stark white paper plate, “stand up.”
“We’ll have the doctor come take you out.”
According to Smith, our language of “black” and “white” is inherently divisive. Human beings do not inherently belong to these categories. We need to recognize our differences, but not allow them to prevent us from coming together to discuss solutions.
Smith believes that in race relations, like in international diplomacy, conflicts must be talked through. Without the proper language, the strife will only continue.
Of his long and distinguished career, Smith said, “I’ve had my hand on the hand of the Lord.” That hand has taken him down high and low roads.
He likens his life, and its many relationships and experiences, to the old patch quilts of an era long passed.
“One finds pieces here and there and looks to see how they might blend,” Smith said.