America's 'Last Direct Link to Slavery' Has Died at 90

Civil rights activist Daniel Smith's father told family about the horrors of slavery
By Rob Quinn,  Newser Staff
Posted Oct 21, 2022 6:59 AM CDT
Son of a Man Born Into Slavery in Virginia Dies at 90
Smith's story is a "reminder that slavery was not that long ago,' says Sana Butler, who helped him edit forthcoming memoir "Son of a Slave: A Black Man’s Journey in White America."   (Getty Images/sedmak)

Daniel Smith, who may have been the last surviving child of an American born into slavery, has died at age 90 after a life so remarkable that a friend joked that he was the "Black Forrest Gump." Smith's father was born on a plantation in Virginia in 1863. He was 70 when Smith was born, and was killed in a hit-and-run accident six years later. Smith told the Economist last year that he used to sneak out of bed and listen to his father telling his older siblings the tales of the horrors of slavery he had heard from his parents, including of the "whipping and crying post" and the "hanging tree."

"I remember hearing about two slaves who were chained together at the wrist and tried to run away," said Smith, whom the magazine described as our "last direct link to slavery." "They were found by some vicious dogs hiding under a tree, and hanged from it." Smith, who said his family were "poor as church mice" during his childhood in a mostly white Connecticut town, served as an Army medic in the Korean War and later became involved in the civil rights struggle in Alabama, where he had gone to study veterinary medicine, the Washington Post reports.

He marched with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in Washington, DC, in 1963 and later settled in the capital, where he worked for the federal government and founded a national training program for primary care physicians, reports AFP. His work also took him to apartheid-era South Africa. After he retired in the 1990s, he served as head usher at Washington National Cathedral, where he met presidents including Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama. He was in the crowd for Obama's inauguration in 2008—and joined the George Floyd protests in 2020.

Smith told the Economist that despite being known as a civil rights activist, he rarely mentioned his family's history, describing it a "something under the surface that we were not proud of." "We could never talk negatively about America in front of my father," who worked as a janitor in a clock factory, he said. "He did not have much but he really, really loved America. Isn’t that funny." Earlier this year, he told CBS that America has made a lot of progress in his lifetime, but there is still a long way to go. " We need more kindness," he said. "And I look back, in terms of my crazy life, and I think it all came from my father saying, 'Do good things. Do good things.'" (Read more slavery stories.)

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