Dr. Hallie Hendrieth Smith, a trailblazer in education

 

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Black History Month Profile

In celebration of Black History Month,  for over a decade, the MSR has sent writers into the community to find elders with stories they are willing to share and to record them for posterity’s sake. For this year’s Black History Month, we are highlighting individuals who have been pioneers in education, struggled to raise families, been supportive of their community and worked to diversify the corporate landscape. Their stories highlight contributions to their own and the broader community. 

We hope you enjoy the stories of triumph offered in this 2016 Black History Month edition.

(l-r) Governor Dayton, Dr. Hattie Hendrieth-Smith and United Negro College Fund President and CEO, Dr. Michael L. Lomax.
(l-r) Governor Dayton, Dr. Hallie Hendrieth-Smith and United Negro College Fund President and CEO, Dr. Michael L. Lomax.

Being bypassed for a secretarial job at a local department store proved a blessing not only for Dr. Hallie Hendrieth Smith, but also the children of Minneapolis, especially those of color.

“I [applied] for a secretary job at Dayton’s and there were five of us who applied for the job. I was the only one who was a licensed teacher. The young lady that got the job was just out of high school and she was White,” recalls Smith, who moved to Minneapolis with her late first husband in the 1950s. She later applied and was hired for a teaching job with the Minneapolis Public Schools.

“I was the only African American woman at Willard at that time. I was there as a teacher nine years. After nine years, the superintendent recommended me as principal. I said, ‘I didn’t want to be a principal because I wanted to stay as a teacher.’ [But] he gave me the job [as principal],” says Smith, who as a result became the district’s first Black female public school principal.

But before Smith relocated to the Cities, education had been a huge part of her life growing up. Born in Orville, Alabama, Smith and her siblings lived with their parents on a farm outside of Selma. “My parents sent us to Selma to go to school. They only had private schools” that Black children were allowed to attend, run by the Presbyterian and the Lutheran denominations. She graduated and attended Selma University to pursue a teaching degree.

Her parents, for the most part, shielded her and her siblings from the existing segregated way of life, but Smith found a rude awakening when she went off to college. “That was the first time I knew that you could not go to the [front] door like everyone else. We really didn’t pay any attention about riding the bus because we rode in a horse and buggy,” she points out.  “My dad took us wherever we had to go” into town, adds Smith.

“The teachers at Selma University were from various colleges around the United States. The president was from Howard,” she says proudly. “When I finished Selma University, I went to Alabama State.”

At Alabama State, the 20-year-old young woman met both Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks. King had been assigned to Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, and Parks as a secretary in Montgomery, often would be on campus.

Her impressions of the two: “He was wonderful. He worked with people in the community and organized the civil rights committee,” Smith said of King. She also said Parks was “absolutely fantastic. She was a very wonderful person.”

After graduation from Alabama State, Smith returned home and taught for nine years. “I was the dean of women” at a private high school run by the Reformed Church in Brewton, Alabama, says Smith.  “I don’t believe there was a single school that was integrated.

“One of the things we were able to accomplish and let African American young people know [was] that they could be whatever they wanted. Although there was segregation, there was no reason for them not to be good readers or [good in] math. We taught proper grammar, and we did not use the N-word. They were taught to know that they were independent and could do anything they wanted to do, and reach any goal they set.”

Also during that time, Smith met her first husband, the late Rev. Martin Hendrieth. After the two got married, he was assigned to Wayman AME Church in North Minneapolis in the 1950s.

“I traveled all over the [Midwest]. We finally came to Minneapolis. He became the pastor at Wayman” in 1954 where he served for 15 years.

Soon after her arrival, Smith realized that Jim Crow existed as much in Minneapolis as it did in her home state. “I was surprised” of the “undercover” level of segregation and discrimination in Minneapolis, she recalls. “It was not bold but quietly done.”

Because her husband wanted to focus solely on his pastorate, “I had to apply for work.  The church could not afford to take care of both of us,” she notes.  After years of classroom teaching, she first resisted the principal offer, but Smith says she soon embraced the opportunity to lead a school.

“There were only two African American teachers on the staff. They were so happy that I came in because their attitude [was] that [an] African Americans [was] in control [of Black students]. But I let them know that I was everyone’s principal and had a wonderful time.  I was the principal for everyone and did not practice segregation,” says Smith, who served in that role for 27 years until she retired in 1981.

Smith, a widow, later met and married her second husband, the Rev. Noah Smith, who died last September at age 107. During their marriage the two remained active in education and community efforts.

She was the founding director of the Richard Green Tutoring Program, operated by the Greater Minneapolis Council of Churches, for local students after school at local churches.

“I feel that the community and the school need to be more involved than what is happening now,” says Smith, who adds that she wants all Blacks to learn and remember their history.

Her advice to teachers then and now: “One of the things I talk to teachers about [is] the curriculum should be inclusive.” Smith also said she believes the seemingly lack of “high expectations” for Black children and other students of color is why the current state of local public education is not equitable.

“That’s one of the reasons we have a gap we talk about [is] because the expectations and the requirements for young people are not at the level they should be,” contends Smith.  “They are capable of doing anything, but if they are not required to do those things, that’s why they are not being successful. That’s 90 percent of the reason why we have the gap we have in schools.  No. 1 is the curriculum and No. 2 is the expectation.”

Smith adds that she is also bothered by teachers not expecting much from Black students. “A lot of them don’t expect them to achieve. They will achieve what you expect them to achieve.” she said.

Smith, who is working on her memoirs, noted that in recent years, “One of the things I have noticed [is] that people are not honest. You cannot pretend that you are going to provide a curriculum and an environment for kids if you do not provide the proper environment and the curriculum for kids.”

She is also disturbed with the current school board in its current superintendent search. “It’s the worst I’ve ever seen,” confides Smith. “We should be looking at the skilled educators in the Minneapolis Public Schools to be considered as a superintendent instead of going outside of the school district to find someone who [is] absolutely not aware of the situation.

“I would go to the board and make this statement — we have many persons [who] are very capable and [who] would come into the position with the expectation and communication with the community. We do not need to go outside of the brilliant educators in the school district in Minneapolis.”

Finally, Smith’s favorite saying – “Accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative” serves as her mantra for life as well.  “There’s absolutely no reason for our young people” not to be successful in school, she concludes.

 

Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to challman@spokesman-recorder.com.

About Charles Hallman

Charles Hallman is a contributing writer at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder. He can be reached at challman@spokesman-recorder.com

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