Dr. Don Smith: ULM’s 1st black graduate

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Dr. Don Smith: ULM’s 1st black graduate

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Donald Smith, his mother and sister watched from their window as three wooden crosses burned on their front yard.
While the grass around the crosses blackened, his mother and sister were horrified, but Smith never even batted an eye at the violent display before him.
“Growing up, he was always a laid-back kind of guy,” said Glenda Starr, Smith’s younger sister. “And he kept that attitude through it all.”
He had recently been accepted to ULM, known as Northeast Louisiana University at the time, and some people were clearly not happy about it. If the notes on Smith’s desks covered in racial slurs and phrases like “Get on!” were not proof enough that he was unwanted, the crosses got the job done.
However, instead of scaring Smith away from attending classes, the incident drove him to be better than he was before.
It was in that moment, as the smoke from the crosses filled the air, he decided he would not react to the hatred. Any time there was a nasty note on his desk, he would knock it off and move across the room. To Smith, getting his education was top priority and there was nothing that was going to get in his way.
“Even though he had some obstacles, they were not big enough to stop him,” Starr said.
Smith had been recruited by a group in the Monroe community who were searching for a young, black person who could handle the racially-biased atmosphere at NLU during that time. To them, Smith seemed like the perfect guy for the job.
He gladly accepted the offer to go to college with the hopes of getting a spot on NLU’s basketball team. But once he arrived, Smith knew there was no chance he could ever join. Yet, he decided to continue his education anyways.
However, Smith would wait until the basketball team cleared out of the gym for the day and then he would shoot some hoops by himself, wondering what it would be like to be a part of the team.
One day, a few of the basketball players noticed his talent and decided to join him for a round which then led to another one.
Soon, it became routine for Smith to play with a handful of NLU’s basketball players. That routine slowly turned into friendship.
Sometimes they would stay at the gym, but mostly the group of unlikely comrades would pile into Smith’s car and head to his house.
There, they would shoot hoops in Smith’s backyard only coming inside to beg his mother for her “famous” bologna sandwiches.
Then, the group would sit around Smith’s kitchen table scarfing their food down as quickly as possible so they could head out for another round.
“These guys started to be with him and support him when others would come up and start something,” Starr said.
Starr said she thinks the friends her brother made at NLU transcended the racial issues in Monroe.
“It wasn’t about the blacks or the whites,” Starr said. “We know that’s still there. It’s always going to be, but Don had a way of overcoming that.”
Despite all of the hardships, Starr said she believes Smith’s time at NLU benefited him in ways their family could never have imagined. Those initial four years in college shaped him into the man he would be for the rest of his life.
“It was a good experience not just for him but for the community,” Starr said.
Being the first black NLU graduate, Smith inspired many others to follow in his footsteps over the years. Even after his passing on Sept. 9, 2019, he is still celebrated on campus.
Last Tuesday, ULM’s NAACP held a candle light vigil in Smith’s honor where they invited his family to speak about his journey.
“He has paved the way for us and encouraged many of us to walk the stage as well,” said Shacorria Green, the ULM’s NAACP president.
Smith received his bachelor of science degree from NLU in 1967. Then, he went on to receive both his master’s in 1972 and his education specialist degree in 1978 from NLU.
At the time, NLU didn’t have a doctorate program yet so Smith had to attend Grambling State University to receive his doctorate in 1995.