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The people gathered – not for a sports event, not for a concert, not for a church service. They gathered in the Memphis and Shelby County Room at the Memphis Public Library & Information Center for a humble woman whose heart, drive, charisma, tenacity, and smile broke down any barrier and moved a people into progression.
"I have a long history of being surrounded by good people," Maxine Smith said as she stepped up to the podium to greet family, friends, and visitors at the portrait unveiling ceremony in her honor.
There to honor her for her portrait unveiling at the Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library were Reverend Reginald Porter, Sr.; Reginald Porter, Jr.; Dr. Fred Lofton; and Matthew King. Remarks were made by Mayors Wharton and Luttrell as well as U.S. Representative Steve Cohen, State Representatives Johnnie Turner and Beverly Marrero, and Commissioners Justin Ford and Melvin Burgess, II along with friends, encouraging audience members - young and old - to be like Smith and continue to fight the good fight with courage, creativity, beauty, and perseverance.
Metropolitan Baptist Church commissioned and donated the portrait painted by artist Larry Walker, a native Memphian. He is the same artist who was commissioned to paint the Tennessee Historic Council's oil painting of the civil rights activist Ida B. Wells and was the first African American artist to paint a portrait of a mayor that hangs in the Hall of Mayors in City Hall.
Smith donated her collection of papers – the Maxine A. Smith NAACP Collection – to the Memphis and Shelby County Room in 1996 following her retirement in 1995 as Executive Secretary of the Memphis Branch. The extensive collection provides highly-detailed documentation of the efforts of the NAACP to ensure equal rights for African Americans through a wide-range of actions such as meeting with elected officials, holding voter registration drives, requesting investigations of police brutality, coordinating protests and boycotts, circulating petitions, picketing and organizing sit-ins to integrate public facilities. The material covers the years 1958 through 1995. The collection documents the Memphis Branch's local efforts such as investigating complaints of workplace discrimination at local businesses and national efforts such as advocating for the conformation of Thurgood Marshall as a U.S. Supreme Court Justice.
"Never in my life did I dream I'd be in politics; I called myself an educator...," she stated in an interview with Crossroads to Freedom. And, educate she did. Mrs. Smith served as a former executive secretary for the Memphis Branch of the NAACP and a former Memphis City School Board member. She was instrumental in helping organize the desegregation of Memphis public schools in 1960.
Reverend Reginald Porter, Sr., pastor of Metropolitan Baptist Church said, "The Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library is the best place for her portrait." Porter went on to say that Smith and Hooks were close friends in and outside of the Civil Rights Movement. "You can't talk about one without talking about the other." Similarly, Wendi C. Thomas spoke of Smith's husband Dr. Vasco Smith in her September 2009 column: “it's difficult to think of 1 Smith at a time" as she recalls her interview with Dr. Vasco Smith and Mrs. Maxine Smith.
In the words of Maxine Smith, "God has allowed me to see and be a part of a progress in action. For me, the historical significance of the unveiling of this portrait is that the first two sit-ins of the NAACP Youth and College Chapters took place on March 21, 1961 at the main branches of the Memphis and Shelby County Library System. One is now named the Benjamin L. Hooks Library, which was previously on Peabody Avenue. The other houses the University of Memphis School of Law, which was previously the downtown library and also housed the federal court where we spent tedious hours hearing legal arguments on cases charging segregation filed by the local NAACP. Neither Ben nor I, both native Memphians, were allowed to use the facilities.
I am deeply honored that my likeness hangs in Bennie's library, and my papers are housed therein. Both edifices have been beautifully renovated. This is concrete evidence of the progress in the beauty of our city as well as the beauty and expansion of the soul of our hometown."
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