By Clyde Hughes | AC JosepH Media
SALEM – Reginald Smith was about to become a guidance counselor at a high school in Salem County, a job that would have shorten his driving time to work by an hour after traveling back and forth Atlantic Community College.
But then the superintendent made a comment that changed everything.
“I met with the superintendent of schools and he offered me the job,” Smith said. “He told me that he was going to the board of education that night with my name. During the meeting, he told me that all the Blacks in the town lived in the part of town called the ‘Cabbage Patch.’ When I got home, I called him and told him that was a racist comment and that I could not work in a school district with him as the superintendent.”
Two months later, Smith was hired at Salem Community College as its lone African-American faculty member. That was in 1977. Fast forward to today and Smith, an associate professor of social science, now has one of the longest education tenures at one institution in all of New Jersey at 42 years.
Smith still feels he has more to give students at Salem and wants to continue making an impact.
“I hope that at this point in my life that I can inspire and mentor younger professionals to look out for the voiceless; to embrace those that others would shun,” Smith said in an exclusive interview with Front Runner New Jersey.com. “I hope that young people who believe no one cares about them, see there is someone that cares and they can pay it forward. Many colleagues come to me over the years for advice, often telling me that I have been a positive role model for them.”
Smith has kept his promise to pay it forward as well. In 2016, he established a book grant for students at Salem Community College. The Reginald and Florence Smith Book Grant, named for his mother, enables students with limited financial means help get the books they need to continue their education.
“My father was a very sick man and died when I was very young,” Smith said. “My mother raised eight children as a single parent instilling the importance of education in all of her children. She was one of those parents who made visits to the school to talk to teachers about how well her children were doing.
“At the time of her death, she was the school mom for the local elementary school as well as taking classes. She was a lifelong learner. All of her children attended college and have had very successful careers. The desire for education has continued with her grandchildren and great-grandchildren, most of whom have attended college,” Smith continued.
“Education has provided me with a wonderful life free of financial concerns. My family and I were people of modest means, but I was taught by my mother that you can always help people who are less fortunate than yourself. It was that lesson taught early in life that was the reason for the establishment of the book grant scholarship fund,” he added.
Over 42 years, Smith had his chances to leave Salem Community College. In fact, Smith said he took a job as director of Operation PUSH Excel in Philadelphia. But after doing some “soul search,” Smith said he felt he could have a bigger impact by remaining in Salem.
“I decided years ago to stay at Salem so that people regardless of any race and or ethnicity could see and have interaction with a proud assertive African-American,” Smith said. “A student approximately 25 years old who was a teacher in her native Brazil told me after class one day that I was the first ‘Black professional’ she had ever seen. In addition to teaching, I see my responsibility as being a voice for the voiceless.”
In staying true to that responsibility, Smith has made himself available to speak at many events, particularly during MLK Day and Black History Month.
“When I speak I try to emphasize that Black History is being made every day,” Smith said. “It’s important to teach about Harriet Tubman, and Sojourner Truth but Black History did not end with them. Children and adults need to know Black History did not end in 1900, that it is made today. An example is Sheila Oliver, the first woman of color to be the lieutenant governor of New Jersey. She and I went to Lincoln University at the same time. She was in the class of 1974. I was in the class of 1973.”
Smith, who also served on the Voorhees Township School Board from 1980-1983, has given back to Salem CC on various committees. He led the college’s diversity committee for 15 years and now serves on its equity committee.
“When I served on a committee I have several rules for myself,” Smith said. “I always ask myself what do I want to accomplish on the committee? Always be prepared for the meeting by doing homework before the meeting. Always participate in the meeting, not just sit there. Speak for the voiceless when appropriate. In speaking for the voiceless, I am making sure that minority students are included in campus publications, and that all students are considered when discussing how students are treated on campus, including campus security.”
Smith also started the campus Peace Center, an outgrowth of an idea to establish a Holocaust education center.
“Every county in New Jersey has a Holocaust Education Center that is usually housed at a college in that county,” Smith said. “The Quakers/ Friends in Woodstown, New Jersey, has a collection of materials that they wanted to have wider circulation. … The (Salem) college president asked me to handle it.
“I told him that I felt it would be better if we establish a Peace Center; a place that would house the materials from the Friends, but also a place that would have speakers and provide a place for conflict resolution. He liked the concept and that was the start of the Peace Center,” he added.
On a personal note, Smith has collected African and Asian art for years.
“I bought my first piece of African art when I was 17 years old and have been collecting ever since,” Smith said. “I probably received at least about eight pieces of African art just this year alone. I can still remember wearing a dashiki in high school and people wondering what it was. I started collecting cloisonné about 30 years ago I was fascinated with the workmanship and expanded that collection to other works of art including Asian furniture.”
Smith said after more than four decades, he still has more to give, particularly for the voiceless.
Photo courtesy of Salem Community College.