Black Experience

Alonzo Smith, Prominent D.C.-Area Civil Rights Activist, Dies at 79

Alonzo Smith, a venerable social justice activist who participated in a mobilizing call with the Poor People’s Campaign, and whose mother “passed” for white, allowing her to buy a family home in D.C., has died at the age of 79.

The Rockville, Maryland, resident died March 5 from a form of leukemia at the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore, according to his son, Alex Smith of Palm Harbor, Florida.

“He was a messenger of peace, love and social justice,” the younger Smith said of his father. “In a world that is divided by geographical country borders, nationalities, races, genders, and religions, he was someone who believed in the unity of the human race

Smith was the founding father of the Montgomery County chapter of The Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, a movement he joined in 2018.

He was so dedicated that the night before he died, he contributed to a campaign conference call. Six weeks earlier, when his doctors thought he would die, he rallied after Rev. Dr. William Barber, co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign, prayed with him over the phone.

The doctors had said “there were no more branches we could pull,” said his widow Susan, to whom he was married for 44 years. “But Rev. Barber’s prayers gave Alonzo a renewed strength that allowed him to carry on for six more weeks.”

After he was released on Jan. 27 from Shady Grove Adventist Hospital in Gaithersburg, Smith demanded to go right away to a campaign meeting for the Montgomery Poor People’s campaign. But first, he got a milkshake.

“Our brother was a mighty friend to the cause of justice,” Barber said. “We must now keep his legacy alive by calling his name and continuing his service to the cause of justice and human rights.”

Smith’s father Alonzo DeGrate Smith was the first African American certified by the American Board of Pediatrics in 1934 and one of only two Black pediatricians in D.C. in 1946. In an era when hospitals wouldn’t treat Black children, Alonzo Smith opened his home as a medical office, Alex Smith recalls his father telling him.

His mother Marie Wright Smith passed for white, so when it came time to buy a family home in the Columbia Heights section of D.C., she toured possible homes and paid for it, saying her husband was too busy.

Smith taught African American, U.S. and African history, and Human Rights at Montgomery College, where he was a tenured professor. He had lived four years in Africa: three with the Peace Corps in the Republic of the Ivory Coast and one in Sierra Leone, where he was a project director for AfriCare, a USAID project for war-displaced people from 1991 to 1992.

From 1994 to 2005, Smith was a program researcher and curator at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History. He was one of two curators for “Separate Is Not Equal: Brown v. Board of Education,” the museum’s observance of the 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s school desegregation decision.

His education included a doctorate in African American studies from UCLA, a master’s degree from Howard University and a bachelor’s degree from Georgetown. He was fluent in seven languages, including Spanish, French, Creole and German. During his high school years, Smith attended the Quaker School Westtown in West Chester, Pa., which he credited with imbuing him with an interest in world affairs.

Smith donated his body to Howard University, the alma mater of both himself and his father.

In addition to his wife and son, he is survived by his daughter Marie Smith and daughter-in-law Jessica Smith.

Funeral services, for which a date has not yet been determined, will be held in alignment with COVID-19 guidelines. The family requests that donations be made in the memory of Alonzo Smith to The Montgomery County Poor People’s Campaign by clicking on the “donate” button at poorpeoplescampaign.org/committee/maryland.

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