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Meet the woman who has witnessed over 80 years of Black history in Chicago

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

I know this isn't exactly gracious, but may we ask how old you are?

EDITH RENFROW SMITH: One hundred eight plus.

SIMON: God bless. When's your birthday?

SMITH: July 14, 1914.

SIMON: I was pleased to introduce Edith Renfrow Smith, one of the many Black Americans whose historic lives we celebrate this month. And what a life - born just weeks before the start of World War I into one of the only Black families in Poweshiek County, Iowa.

You know, we looked it up in the 1910 census. There were 20,000 people who lived there, but just 55 Black people.

SMITH: Well, that was more than I knew about.

SIMON: (Laughter).

SMITH: We were the only Black family that I heard of at that time.

SIMON: She lived in Grinnell and would go on to attend the small liberal arts college just blocks from her home. Class of 1937 - the first Black woman graduate in Grinnell College history. In fact, all six of the Renfrow children went to college, a remarkable achievement for a Black family just a few decades after Plessy v. Ferguson put official gloss on the lie of separate but equal.

SMITH: My mother insisted that education was the only thing that could not be taken away from them.

SIMON: A lot had been taken away, and in living memory - Edith's own grandfather was born into slavery.

SMITH: He had nine brothers and for some reason his mother had taken those children to Arkansas. And he was only 14. And at that time he was old enough to be a slave. So she had to send him to Louisiana, where he would find a good master to buy him.

SIMON: In time, George Craig escaped. And there's evidence John Brown helped him find his way to Grinnell. George Craig worked there as a barber. Edith's parents, Lee and Eva Renfrow, worked as a cook and a laundress.

How did your parents manage to send six children to college?

SMITH: Very diligently - my sister, who was eight years older than I, went into service so she could keep my brother in Hampton Institute in Virginia until he graduated from college. Everybody helped each other.

SIMON: Edith herself put off college for a year to work and continued working as a secretary and in the campus duplicating office throughout her time as the only Black student at Grinnell College. But she still made time to participate in women's intramural dance, badminton, a sport called ring tennis, basketball, field hockey, and she met visiting dignitaries.

Amelia Earhart?

SMITH: Yes. She was one of the celebrities that came to Grinnell to talk to the students. And she was just like another one of us. It was a delightful visit.

SIMON: So you met Amelia Earhart?

SMITH: Oh, yes.

SIMON: Oh, my gosh. Did you tell her you got to be careful where you're flying?

SMITH: (Laughter) No.

SIMON: And that would not be the last time Edith Renfrow stood shoulder to shoulder with greatness. She moved to Chicago after graduation, going from a town where she was nearly alone as a Black person to the city where Louis Armstrong came of age, where the great novelist Richard Wright founded the South Side Writers Group.

Did you ever meet Gwendolyn Brooks?

SMITH: Only in passing because she was giving a program at the YWCA.

SIMON: Wow.

SMITH: I went to all the programs where they came as celebrities, and the YWCA, which had hired me, saw to it that we met all the famous Negroes who came to Chicago to give programs.

SIMON: How did you become a teacher?

SMITH: Well, I didn't intend to become a teacher because my major in college was history and economics. It was only when I came to Chicago and Oscar De Priest, who was a congressman...

SIMON: Oscar De Priest, we should mention - first African American elected to Congress in the...

SMITH: That's right.

SIMON: ...Twentieth century, after Reconstruction.

SMITH: He asked me if I would like to be a teacher. That's when I decided to take a methods course where I could join the Chicago system.

SIMON: Wow. What was the Great Depression like?

SMITH: Very, very strenuous, because we were the last ones to receive what was offered.

SIMON: You mean Blacks, yes?

SMITH: That's right. Well, I thought that's what we were talking about...

SIMON: Yeah, we are.

SMITH: ...African Americans.

SIMON: We absolutely are.

Edith Renfrow married Henry Smith in 1940. They had two daughters and settled on Chicago's South Side, along with many other Black families, including the Hancocks.

HERBIE HANCOCK: Mrs. Smith was a dear friend of my mother's in particular. So we were that close, almost like we were related. More like she was an aunt - that kind of a thing.

SIMON: And that is Herbie Hancock.

SMITH: He and my oldest daughter were friends across the street. He could only reach the windowsill, and she could too, 'cause they were both about 2. And that's when we became friends of the Hancocks.

HANCOCK: I think the word regal applies here. She had a regal kind of presence.

SMITH: I had been to Grinnell College, and so his mother was interested in colleges for her son.

HANCOCK: She didn't try to convince me to go to Grinnell out of any kind of forcing me in some way or tricking me to go to Grinnell. Just her demeanor was one of absolute respect, and that's how I still feel about Mrs. Smith.

SIMON: And that's how one of the greatest jazz musicians in history ended up spending four years and finding his calling in the middle of Iowa.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Chicago, always the most bustling of American cities, leaps ahead in a frenzy of building.

SIMON: Edith Renfrow Smith has lived in Chicago now for 86 years. What's happened there during that time? Well, let's see - Ebony and Jet magazines, Elijah Muhammad and Louis Farrakhan of the Nation of Islam, Oprah Winfrey built an empire there, Barack Obama became president from there. It's where the Reverend Jesse Jackson founded Operation PUSH and the Rainbow Coalition. Although Edith Renfrow Smith is, without explanation, not much of a fan of the admired reverend.

SMITH: We were quite unhappy with him, so please don't talk about him. Because I don't think he did what he should do.

SIMON: Forgive me - do you remember times of civil unrest, too, on the South Side?

SMITH: You know, they had - one of the things is I am not a person who - a rabble - I call them rabble-rousers because we only wanted peace and quiet where I - and that's all I wanted for my children. So I did not march, but they did.

SIMON: Dr. King spent a year in Chicago. I wonder if you ever met him.

SMITH: I did. When he came and spoke at a synagogue, that was when I met him. And that was when he first started his tour of talking.

SIMON: My gosh. You met Martin Luther King at a synagogue. As a Chicagoan, this makes me proud. This is the way...

SMITH: Yes, it should be.

SIMON: ...History fits together.

SMITH: That's right.

SIMON: You've seen a lot of history, haven't you?

SMITH: A lot, a lot, a lot - a lot of good, and a lot of bad.

SIMON: Have we made progress in this country, or do we keep slipping back?

SMITH: Once you elect somebody who had so many detrimental things to say about anyone who was not a WASP - well, I think we're trying to slip backward.

SIMON: And yet, Edith Renfrow Smith at 108 years of age is undaunted and greets every day like an old friend.

SMITH: Wake up every morning and thank the good Lord that you are alive and able to look at his wonderful world.

SIMON: I like that. I think that sounds beautiful.

SMITH: Well, it makes life beautiful and always go with a smile. A frown does nothing for the person you meet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.

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