Black History Month: BFD's Smith reflects on segregation
When 57-year-old Beaumont Fire and Rescue fire inspector Michael Smith became one of the first 20 black firefighters to work for the city of Beaumont in 1982, he said it was like experiencing a case of déjà vu.
Two decades earlier, Smith was enrolled to attend Odom Elementary — a segregated school in Beaumont for black children. Smith said it didn’t make sense to him, even as a young boy.
“I never understood … why we were passing up all the schools to go to a black school when there were so many schools near us,” Smith said. “You can imagine all the conveniences of being able to go to a neighborhood school — the close proximity to home … parents being more able to participate in activities like PTA.”
But it wasn’t until the desegregation of the South Park Independent School District in the late 1960s that Smith and his family were able to experience these conveniences.
Smith said he grew up in a world where African-Americans were struggling to find equality, but that his parents — Junies and Betty Smith — taught him to rise above other people’s ignorance.
“My parents always taught us that you treat others as you would have them treat you, you’re equal to everybody that’s walking around, and to show due respect to people,” Smith said.
His parents also introduced him to a positive role model that remains one of the most prominent figures in history today — Martin Luther King Jr. — insisting that Smith and his brothers Robert and David watch the famous “I Have a Dream” speech as it was broadcast.
“It still puts chills down my spine to see the movement progress and to have seen all the people in Washington that day,” Smith said. “It was such a big thing for black America to finally be getting inclusion on a national level.”
This movement became a reality for Smith and thousands of other African-American children in Beaumont. Smith’s sixth grade year marked a change that had been a long time coming, the chance to attend an integrated school for the first time. It was a frightening experience for a 12-year-old Smith.
“Everybody was nervous,” he said. “They didn’t know what to expect from us, and we didn’t know what to expect from them. Fear comes along with anything that is unknown. That’s when I really realized for myself … you can hear Martin Luther King say we’re all equal and all that, but to actually live it is a whole different thing.”
Unlike other national news horror stories of the 1960s that documented African-American high school students from Birmingham, Ala., being assaulted with high-pressure water hoses and police dogs during peaceful protests, Smith said, for him, the transition into an integrated school was without incident and even turned out to be one of the greatest experiences of his life.
Smith said he left Fehl Elementary with some lifelong friendships.
“Most of the time the only thing that gets verbalized or gets publicity are sometimes just the negative aspects of relationships, and it didn’t turn out to be that way at all,” Smith said. “Once we got in the classroom, we turned in our lesson just like the other students did. I think it put everyone’s mind at ease that this was going to be OK.”
Smith graduated from Hebert High School in 1974. Eight years later, Smith’s life seemed to come full circle when he entered Beaumont Fire and Rescue as a minority.
“I came into a pretty much all-white environment,” Smith said. “I felt that same feeling that I felt when I went to Fehl Elementary.”
Once more, just as He did at Fehl Elementary, God blessed him with a smooth transition, Smith said.
“That particular experience (at Fehl) prepared me,” he said. “There was a sense of confidence that it was going to be OK.”
Smith said he was accepted into a brotherhood of firefighters where the only thing that mattered was how he performed his job and how well he watched his fellow firefighter’s back.
“The fire fighting profession is a unique one,” Smith said. “Whenever you get on a fire truck, your life is on the line. I’ve run into many a burning building … really depending on that person behind me to do their part. You forget whether that person is black or white. Once you are a fireman, you are a fireman. I’ve been very fortunate to be part of a workgroup where race and nationality really hasn’t been a measuring stick.”
Smith spent 17 years as a firefighter, serving and saving the lives of the citizens of Beaumont and has spent an additional 15 years ensuring the public’s protection as a fire safety inspector, having played a pivotal role in the inspections, plan reviews and fire prevention programs at Edison Plaza, Ford Park, Crockett Street and ExxonMobil, among other locations.
Looking forward to his retirement, Smith said his long, illustrious career would not have been possible without the support of his wife of 33 years, Brenda. In addition to spending more time with his family, Smith said he looks forward to spending more time taking part in church activities, fishing and bowling — having participated in several national bowling tournaments.
Although there is no official date set for Smith’s retirement, Capt. Brad Pennison, Smith’s supervisor, said he would be sorely missed when that day comes.
“On a personal level, he’s going to be really hard to replace,” Pennison said, “because of his experience, his personality and his work ethic.”
“Michael is the ideal employee,” added Chief Anne Huff. “He is so good at what he does and is so knowledgeable. He is just so compassionate, understanding and well grounded. When he retires, we are going to be at a big loss.”
Despite his personal success and the drastic improvements in race relations in an era that has seen the first African-American president of the United States in Barrack Obama, Smith said it is still important for the youth of today to be aware of the tribulations African-Americans endured during a time of intolerance and hatred.
“I really think in a lot of instances, my generation, being that we reaped the benefits of Martin Luther King’s struggles and my parents struggles, and that we lived a great portion of our lives in a better society, I think we kind of lost the gravity of what it took to get there and kind of dropped the ball on educating our kids,” said Smith, the father of five children — Latashja, 38; Derek, 36; Michael Jr., 35; DeAnna, 32; Kimberly, 27; and 13 grandchildren. “This February, I made it a point to ensure that my grandkids watched some of the DVDs I have. Some of it is pretty ugly — the water hoses being put on people, the dogs. That’s deep for a young kid to watch.”
But education is everything, Smith said.
“There’s power in education and it can’t help but make you a better person,” he said. “That’s one of the key things that Martin Luther King understood. I think it’s human nature to be sometimes prejudiced (toward) what you don’t understand. A lot of times you can make judgments based on the limited amount of information that you have. We should all seek out understanding.”