TAMPA — Walter Smith Jr. knew what had to be done, but it took time before he was emotionally ready.
On the corner of N Albany Avenue and W Cypress Street, his father, Walter Smith Sr., started a library in two small homes, one of which was built by their family.
Smith Sr., a former president of Florida A&M University, filled the library with books, works of art and artifacts he collected throughout decades of schooling and travels.
Opened in 2004, the Dr. Walter L. Smith Library became a haven and community center for the West Tampa neighborhood’s children.
The library closed in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Smith Sr. died of heart disease in November. His son will reopen the library June 11.
He said it should have been done sooner.
“Some of my fondest memories are of seeing my dad at the spot at the table,” Smith Jr. said, pointing to a chair in the library’s meeting room. “He’d sit there for hours, just writing. I always knew I had to get this place back open, but it took me months to come back here. It was hard. For a time, I just stayed away. But my dad would have wanted me to open it again.”
The library at 905 N Albany Ave. will eventually be open Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays from 2 to 6 p.m., as it was when Smith Sr. was in charge.
For now, it will have erratic hours, open when either Smith Jr. — an environmental engineering consultant — or a volunteer have time.
“We’ll always open if someone calls and asks,” Smith Jr. said. “We’re here to serve.”
The library needs improvements — Smith Jr. recently fixed one of the outdoor decks. It needs new computers, too.
So, Smith Jr. is soliciting funds from the community.
“We are not a part of the county library system,” Smith said. “We’re private. We need help to get my father’s dream going again.”
There was once a grapefruit orchard on the corner lot where the library now sits.
Smith Sr. was raised in a home behind that orchard.
“My grandfather, who was a longshoreman, bought the orchard and my grandmother designed a house on the corner,” Smith said. “They moved into the house in the 1950s.”
By then, his father had been sent to live with grandparents in Georgia because he was getting into too much trouble in Tampa.
“That’s when his adventures began,” Smith Jr. said.
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His father fled Georgia at 16 to avoid being lynched for punching a white man who had directed a racial slur at him.
Smith Sr. then moved to New York, dropped out of high school, joined the Army, served in the Korean War, got a GED, enrolled in St. Petersburg’s Gibbs Junior College for Negro students, and earned a bachelor’s and master’s degrees from FAMU and a doctorate from Florida State University.
He returned to FAMU as its president from 1977 to 1985, then headed to the University of Malawi in Central Africa as a Senior Fulbright Scholar. In 1994, he was a monitor for the election that made Nelson Mandela president of the Republic of South Africa.
“When dad came home,” Smith Jr. said, “he was heartbroken by what he saw.”
Kids in his childhood neighborhood hung out in the street and lacked basic knowledge of Black and African history.
So Smith Sr. purchased the home neighboring his parents’ house and converted the two into a library focused on those topics.
“The kids loved it,” Smith Jr. said. “They had computers and they’d get help with their homework. They’d stay from when school let out until it was time for bed.”
In recent years, Smith Jr. said, the library was used more as a meeting space than an after school program, but he hopes it returns to its roots.
“I want kids to come read these books and learn,” he said.
Artifacts include masks that Smith Sr. brought from Africa and tools that Smith Jr.’s great-great-grandfather used as a cobbler on the plantation where he was enslaved.
Among the library’s rarest books is an autographed copy of Booker T. Washington’s autobiography, “Up from Slavery.”
But Smith Jr. said the most personal book is not yet on the shelves.
He is working with a publisher on a second edition of his father’s book, “Magnificent Twelve: Florida’s Black Junior Colleges,” which was released in 1994.
“I cried when they said the book was almost ready,” Smith Jr. said. “That second edition is something he wanted. That book is part of his legacy and so is this library.”
How to help
Those interested in donating to or volunteering at the Walter L. Smith Sr. Library should call 813-531-1845.