Jane Smith, 74, ran to challenges, worked for presidents

Jane Smith, was a formidable scholar, teacher, mentor and administrator.
Jane Smith, was a formidable scholar, teacher, mentor and administrator.

Credit: unk

Credit: unk

A few months ago, Spelman College President Mary Schmidt Campbell ran into former staff member Jane Smith at a memorial for a student killed in an automobile accident. Smith had retired in December 2019 as the school’s vice president for college relations, but Campbell wasn’t surprised to see her.

“She stepped right in there and organized that tribute service, which was so typical,” Campbell said.

It was Smith’s last act for Spelman which, as Campbell would later write, “ran like a river through [her] life.”

Four generations of family members attended Spelman before she did, and she had four stints at the college herself. She attended a Spelman-run nursery school in the late 1940s; came back as a student, graduating in 1968. She returned as a staffer in the late 1970s before leaving and returning again from 2004-2019.

She spent long stretches in the world beyond, variously hired or appointed to demanding posts by the likes of Coretta Scott King, presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton and by former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.

Over a 44-year career she plunged into addressing a matrix of social and cultural problems, from poverty in Atlanta’s poorest neighborhoods to the lack of diversity in corporate America and shaping leadership skills in Black women and women in general.

Campbell believes Smith’s career and life were fueled by the flame of hope.

“Despite Dr. King’s [1968] assassination, the 1960s brought us the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act and the March on Washington,” Campbell said. “For our generation, there was a lot of optimism, and Jane never lost that optimism, not even in her final days.”

Jane Elaine Smith, 74, died December 12 of complications from pancreatic cancer. A memorial service is scheduled for January 8 at Friendship Baptist Church in Atlanta, where she’d been a lifelong member. Due to COVID -19 attendance is limited, but the service will be streamed.

Jane Smith, right, with others discussing women in the workplace. Smith was an active academic, both teaching and putting into practice what she learned by taking on challenges from poverty in Atlanta to international business.
Jane Smith, right, with others discussing women in the workplace. Smith was an active academic, both teaching and putting into practice what she learned by taking on challenges from poverty in Atlanta to international business.

She was born July 27, 1946, and raised in southwest Atlanta’s Collier Heights in a family of sprawling intellectual achievement. Her father Harvey B. Smith was a dentist, and her mother Lavada Smith was a teacher and classically trained violinist. Her grandfather Harvey Smith Sr. was a colleague of the Rev. Martin Luther King Sr.; her great-grandfather founded a religious preparatory school for Black boys, and her uncle was a president of an NAACP chapter.

But her most profound influence was her great aunt Bazoline Estelle Usher, a 1906 Spelman graduate. Usher, who earned a Master’s at Atlanta University, was a favorite student of influential scholar and writer W. E. B. DuBois. She’d go on to become director of education for Atlanta Public Schools’ Black students prior to integration and was the first Black woman with an office at Atlanta City Hall, albeit in a basement desk tucked behind large stacks of books.

“When my mother was a teenager, the two of them would write letters to Black prisoners,” said Chad Browning, the youngest of Smith’s two sons. “They would send off 100 letters and maybe five would write back. My mother was taught from a young age to reach out to others without expecting anything back.”

Smith earned a Bachelor’s in sociology from Spelman, a Masters in sociology from Emory and a Doctor of Education in Social Policy Analysis from Harvard before she and her husband, dentist Larry Browning moved back to Atlanta in 1975.

In five years, the ever-restless Smith progressed from assistant professor of sociology, to head of freshman studies and finally to assistant to the president. She left in 1980, and the next quarter century was spent doing this:

From 1981 to 1990 she managed Atlanta and Detroit INROADS, identifying high school juniors and seniors with high leadership potential to help rectify the lack of people of color in corporate America.

From 1991-93 Smith was director of development at the King Center.

From 1993-98 she was program director for Jimmy Carter’s The Atlanta Project, with the audacious task of eliminating poverty in a wide swath of the region.

From 1998-2004 she was the president and chief executive officer of the National Council of Negro Women in Washington.

President Bill Clinton appointed her to the National Women’s Business Council, and Secretary of State Madeline Albright appointed her to the Beijing Plus Five Conference delegation while she was also CEO of Business and Professional Women/USA.

Smith’s marriage didn’t survive the odyssey. Divorcing in the early 1980s, she and Larry Browning remained friends, and Browning continued sharing a dental practice with Smith’s father.

Smith’s sons believe her 2004 return to Spelman was the highlight of her career. She was hired by President Beverly Daniel Tatum to run the then year-old Center for Leadership & Civic Engagement.

“Jane brought this incredible institutional knowledge of Spelman, but she also knew how to succeed beyond Spelman, how to advance toward your destination,” Tatum said.

“We had a lot of mentorship programs, and I wanted to bring them all together under one leadership center. We wanted to create a program to help students recognize their leadership potential, including those who are reluctant to put themselves out front.’

Smith retired a year ago. Her cancer was diagnosed in September

“I went to see her Nov. 5, the last time I saw her conscious,” said lifelong friend Jamilla “Jill” Bell. “We had a wonderful visit. We talked about seeing “Gone With the Wind” at the Fox [in the mid 1950s] and we looked at old photos. At one point Jane wanted to put on lipstick so I went and got it. When I handed it to her I told her, “And I thought I was the diva.’”

Smith is survived by sons Clinton Browning and Chad Browning (Nailah Sutherland), two younger brothers, Ahmad Karim and Homer Miles Smith, and grandchildren.

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