Bertha M. Smith was a role model for generations of children, a respected community leader, a tireless volunteer and a transcendent figure in the early years of the civil rights movement in Minneapolis.
Smith, who was the first black teacher hired by the Minneapolis School District in the late 1940s, died April 18 in Brooklyn Center from complications of a stroke. She was 94.
In a statement Wednesday, Bernadeia Johnson, superintendent of schools, called Smith “a pioneer in education in Minneapolis. As the first African-American hired as a teacher in Minneapolis public schools, she broke down barriers and enabled our students, regardless of their race, to see themselves reflected in their teachers and school staff.”
Former Minneapolis Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton said Smith was part of a group of elders that included Harry Davis, Sam Richardson, Dorothy Woolfork, Elmer Childress and Matthew Little who were “the mature voices of our community, the voices of experience.” She called Smith a “hands-on leader.”
“I was never at a function where the community was expressing its concern about the children of our city without her being in the mix,” said Sayles Belton.
In the schools, Smith taught kindergartners, then special education students.
Former superintendent Carol Johnson described Smith as “an extraordinary educator” whose classroom extended beyond the school. “She never hesitated to volunteer for anything that improved young people’s life chances and opportunities,” Johnson said.
Over decades, Smith served on a variety of boards, among them Women-in-Education, the Association for Childhood Education, the Minneapolis NAACP and the Minneapolis Urban League. She was a Girl Scout troop leader for many years.
In 2001 Sayles Belton declared July 28 “Bertha M. Smith Day.” Following speeches by numerous local officials at a community gathering of 250 people, Smith spoke. “Smith’s remarks included a compassionate plea to give the money to those in need,” Velma Warder wrote in the Minneapolis Spokesman-Recorder, a local black newspaper.
Smith graduated from Miss Wood’s Kindergarten Primary Training School in 1944 and taught in the nursery school at the Phyllis Wheatley Neighborhood House in north Minneapolis.
Ron Edwards, a longtime Minneapolis civil rights activist, said that civil rights leader Nellie Stone Johnson and Cecil Newman, publisher of the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder, pressured the Minneapolis School District to hire Smith as the first black teacher in what had been an all-white teaching staff.
“She was a legend,” Edwards said. In 1952 and 1953 when the civil rights movement started to develop, “she was an illustration that Negroes could be successful,” he said.
The Rev. Randy Staten, president of the Coalition of Black Churches in Minneapolis, said that Smith played a central role in the block-by-block North Side organizing that got him elected as the state’s first black legislator and got Van White elected as the first black City Council member in Minneapolis. He said she was a frequent delegate to DFL city and district conventions.
She was also a longtime Sunday school teacher at Zion Baptist Church. “She was very forward and kind of strict,” said the Rev. Brian Herron, who was a young student in her classes. He recalled, laughing, that “she saw me doing something I wasn’t supposed to be doing and she called my parents. … She really cared and really wanted us to be the best that we could be.”
After her retirement, Smith was a volunteer program coordinator for a senior program.
Smith and her husband, John T. Smith, a Pullman porter, had no children. He died in the late 1960s.
Renee Ochs said she was one of Smith’s many godchildren.
“What was so cool about her was she treated everyone with kindness,” said Tony Martin, a godson. “If someone was in need, Bertha would try and help them. … She had many black friends and white friends.”
Many students would come back to visit her and speak “with great pride and appreciation for what she had invested in them.”
She is survived by a brother, Romaine Johnson Sr. of Hooks, Texas, and Evelyn Bell, whom Smith described in a memo she left as a “sister/friend,” Ochs said.
There will be a visitation Friday at 11:30 a.m. and a service at noon at Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church, 3355 N. 4th St., Minneapolis.
Staff writer Steve Brandt contributed to this report.