Fayette County

Lexington civil rights pioneer credits church for his many successes

The Rev. Charles H. Smith, who is retired and lives in Georgia, signed copies of his books at Shiloh Baptist Church on Sunday as part of a celebration of the church's 117th anniversary.
The Rev. Charles H. Smith, who is retired and lives in Georgia, signed copies of his books at Shiloh Baptist Church on Sunday as part of a celebration of the church's 117th anniversary.

Charles H. Smith used to sit in the front rows of Shiloh Baptist Church as his father preached, causing so much mischief that his mother would take him to the hall for a spanking.

On Sunday, Smith, 82, and a clergyman himself, stood at the lectern instead, celebrating 117 years of storied history of one of Lexington's oldest black churches.

He has a storied history, too, but he says "everything I've ever done started here at Shiloh."

Smith, who has retired near his daughters in Georgia, spent much of his professional life outside of Kentucky, but his time here is crucial to Lexington's past, particularly its part in the civil rights movement. Smith was part of the earliest attempts to integrate public buildings in Lexington, including sit-ins that happened before the better documented ones in 1960 in Greensboro, N.C.

Smith's father, T.H. Smith, preached at Shiloh for 30 years. In his sermon Sunday, Charles Smith said he was saved at age 7, which made his father stare "because he thought I was the devil."

But he stuck with the family business, going to Virginia Union Seminary in Richmond for his religious training. After a few years at a Philadelphia church, Smith came home in 1955 to assist his father at Shiloh. That's where he helped organize the first chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality, or CORE, one of the predominant civil rights organizations, with the help of early civil rights protesters such as Audrey Grievous, Julia Lewis and Abby Marlatt.

The first CORE meetings were at Pleasant Green Baptist Church with the Rev. W.A. Jones. Later, CORE members held sit-in demonstrations at Varsity Village, a restaurant near the University of Kentucky campus.

Smith said his mother, Helen, set the example for him. When one of Smith's brothers was taking the bus to join World War II, she would not allow him to ride in the segregated section.

The Varsity Village sit-ins were not violent, although later demonstrations in Lexington became more so.

"Lexington was always a nice town," Smith said. "It was not a typical Southern city."

He took that early CORE experience to his next job as pastor at First Baptist Church in Huntington, W.Va., where, with Marshall University students, he led sit-ins at local restaurants. (Smith is a member of the West Virginia Civil Rights Hall of Fame.) He gained more fame as the eulogist at 13 funerals for parishioners who died in the 1970 plane crash that killed most of the Marshall University football team.

His varied career led him to New York, where he served as deputy executive director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and to Washington, where he was the national deputy political director for Sen. John Glenn of Ohio. Smith retired last year as the pastor of First Baptist Church in Madison, N.J. He is a prolific author, starting the African-American Jubilee Series of books, which highlight important biographies and history in black America.

Still, he brings it all back to Shiloh.

"I did not realize how much strength I got from my early values," he said.

Gerald Smith, no relation, is a UK history professor and the Martin Luther Scholar in residence. Because the Lexington Herald and the Lexington Leader, the city's daily newspapers during the civil rights era, had an explicit policy of not covering civil rights demonstrations, many people never knew that Lexington was a pioneer in the movement. Smith found evidence of the early sit-ins in old CORE documents. He has interviewed Charles Smith before.

Gerald Smith said CORE was an early interracial group, including members of the black community like Smith, and whites like UK professors Marlatt and William O. Reichert.

"They were willing to really change the status quo in Lexington, which prided itself on good race relations," said Gerald Smith. "They went about challenging the segregation with nonviolent, direct action policy; they sat for a while and left a tip."

(Gerald Smith will be speaking in detail about his research on the local CORE groups on Nov. 9 for Whistle Work, aimed at educating young people about the civil rights movement. For more information, email 4whistlework@gmail.com.)

Charles Smith said that while the United States has changed a great deal since 1959, he worries about the current political climate and race relations since President Barack Obama was first elected in 2008.

"What we have is the unearthing of deep-seated bigotry that has not changed since the post-slavery days," he said. "No one has gotten over the shock of a black man being elected president."

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