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Dr. Walter Smith Library draws those who love to hear Smith

Students, from left, Rocky Saint Louis, Christopher Johnson and William Banks explore the library during a field trip from Mount Pleasant Middle School.


Students, from left, Rocky Saint Louis, Christopher Johnson and William Banks explore the library during a field trip from Mount Pleasant Middle School.


“Oooo, that must have been scary," said 15-year-old Rocky Saint Louis, as he admired a picture of lions lying in deep grass. Walter Smith, 74, had taken the picture after stepping from his truck in Africa. And yes, it was scary, he said. He had jumped back into the truck after rousing a male lion — but not before he snapped one more shot.

Rocky's seventh-grade class from Mount Pleasant Middle School came recently to the Dr. Walter Smith Library, where classes routinely take field trips and some kids stop by on their own after school.

It's a library not like any other, Rocky said.

"You get these stories of what he experienced," Rocky said. "I like that it's personal."

The stories Smith could tell.

Like the time he dropped out of school. Like the time he literally ran for his life. Or when he helped build community colleges and graduate programs in Africa, or became president of Florida A&M University, before returning to his hometown in 2000.

Here, Smith says, he wants to leave a legacy. He figured this library, in a predominantly black neighborhood, would be the best way.

He has big plans for this little white house and other property at the corner of Cypress Street and Albany Avenue — so many that his thoughts sometimes keep him up at night. It's a debt he says he owes to those who helped him.

• • •

As a child, Smith was hardheaded and rebellious, sneaking out of Sunday school to get milk shakes, skipping class at Dunbar Elementary School to swim in the Hillsborough River.

"I was a devil," Smith said.

Fed up, his mother sent her 7-year-old to Cairo, Ga., to live with his grandmother, Susie Coakley, a strict disciplinarian.

During the school year, he excelled in coursework and other activities. He was a track star and Boy Scout.

During summers he worked the fields. He picked okra and stripped cotton, until he grew older and found a job at the Campbell Soup Co.

That's when trouble came.

He was 16 when women picking through vegetables on the conveyor belt yelled at him that summer day: "Run Walter, run!"

Smith had punched a fellow worker, a white boy who Smith says called him the n-word.

"I left him laying in his blood."

But this was the 1950s, and he had crossed a racial boundary. The workers and Smith feared he would be lynched.

So he fled south 35 miles to the campus of Florida A&M University, where his grandfather worked as a garbage man.

After hearing what his grandson had done, he put Smith on a bus to New York City to live with an aunt. Smith got a job pushing carts of clothes, earning $1 a day. He enrolled in night school in Harlem, but dropped out before long.

After stints in the Army, studying medical laboratory technology and working in a hospital, he was back in Tampa in 1957, visiting his mother. She told him about a new college for "colored children."

"You don't need to go back to New York," she told him. "You can do better."

She drove him to St. Petersburg's Gibbs High School, which doubled as a community college by night.

"Where did you go to school?" the college president asked.

"I dropped my head," Smith said. He told me to get my GED and come back.

At age 23, Smith did. He enrolled in the community college and became the first student body president at Gibbs.

Eventually, Smith earned bachelor's and master's degrees from FAMU, and then his doctorate from Florida State University. He became provost at Hillsborough Community College before being recruited as president of Roxbury Community College in Boston.

His next move: president of FAMU from 1977 to 1985.

Seventy-five family members attended the inauguration, he said.

Learning about black history at the library

Inside Smith's library, students took seats at a large table. Under the glass top, a timeline showed highlights in black history.

Then Smith began his presentation. He spoke of Shirley Chisholm, the first African-American woman to serve in Congress. He showed a clip of her running for president in 1972, paving the way for Barack Obama.

"She could not be bossed or bought," he said.

The library, in a converted house next door to Smith's childhood home, is cluttered with remnants of black history and knickknacks of Smith's travels.

In corners and glass cases, dolls in decorative dresses wear gold neck rings. There are masks, drums and statues, some made from sand scraped from the bottom of Lake Malawi in Africa. A prized tapestry, a gift woven with silver and gold hangs on the wall. Roadside posters from the election in Africa that brought Nelson Mandela to power are present. Smith said he was in Africa during the time and helped with the election.

He has been to Africa 19 times, traveling 43 countries. "My heart is there," he says.

Smith and his wife, Barbara, have been married for two years. His four children often traveled with him: John, an Army colonel; André, an architectural and construction specialist at FAMU; Salesia, a lawyer; and Walter Jr., a civil engineer.

Finished with the presentation, Smith showed students a wooden dagger called a "stabbing assegai" that he says was designed by Shaka Zulu for hand-to-hand combat with the British.

The children gaze at walls decorated with Smith's plentiful awards. One, for instance, recognizes his contributions to educating Africans, another his work in Florida, including efforts to desegregate public schools.

A sports room, with boxes of thousands of sports cards also features a Michael Jordan statue — which made the biggest impression on 13-year-old Jordan Lymous.

"I'd rather come here than a regular library," said Jordan, who has been four times with the school. "There's so many artifacts and original pictures to look at."

His path wasn't easy, Smith tells students. But he encourages them to reach even higher heights than he did. He hopes to help them along.

He uses his retirement money to renovate the library and pay for upkeep. He also plans to expand.

A second building, next door to the library, is scheduled to open this month, with resources for science, technology, engineering and math studies.

Elisabeth Parker can be reached at (813) 226-3431 or

fast facts

If you go

The Dr. Walter Smith Library, 905 N Albany Ave. is open to the public Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays from 2 to 7 p.m. Smith encourages organizations to use the facility as a meeting place. Admission is free.

Dr. Walter Smith Library draws those who love to hear Smith 04/15/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 14, 2010 6:28pm]
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