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Education

The late former FAMU President Walter L. Smith leaves a safe place in Tampa for kids to learn

In an orange sweater with crossed arms and a smile in the forefront of the picture is Walter L. Smith. His mother, Eva Reynolds, stands behind him in a red and black coat.
Coutrtesy
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Walter L. Smith II
Walter L. Smith, left, and his mother Eva Reynolds, right, left the two neighboring houses off Albany Avenue and Cypress Street as an education center and museum for kids. The buildings are home to a treasure trove of Black history, including an original 1901 signed copy of Booker T. Washington’s autobiography Up From Slavery.

A violent event as a teenager led Walter L. Smith to drop out of high school. He would later go on to earn a doctorate in higher education administration from Florida State University in 1974. Smith's journey led him to create a space where other kids can get another chance at an education.

The late Walter L. Smith, an author and education advocate, first opened his library and museum in West Tampa as a safe place for children to study away from drugs and violence. But the building stopped operating during the pandemic and Smith's death last year prolonged the closure. Smith's son is reopening the facility this weekend.

Walter L. Smith was once the provost at Hillsborough Community College and later became the seventh president of Florida A&M University from 1977 to 1985, where several degree offerings became available under his leadership, including the school’s first doctoral program in pharmacology.

“We have file cabinets with his presidential papers, where decisions were made that are historic decisions in the state of Florida, regarding education,” said his son, Walter L. Smith II.

He went on to publish The Magnificent Twelve: Florida’s Black Junior Colleges in 1994. The second edition of the book will also be unveiled this weekend. Smith eventually retired in 2010 as a professor at the University of Florida in education leadership.

But before all that, Smith's son said his father actually dropped out of Washington High School, which is now a middle school, in Cairo, Georgia when he was around 15 years old due to violence.

Smith's boss at a Campbell’s Soup Company factory allowed him to briefly leave his shift to present scientific papers as youth president of the local 4-H Club. After returning to work, the white boy who had to cover for him approached him and said “You think you’re something, n-word,” Walter Smith II said.

He proceeded to push Smith, leading Smith to grab an iron hoop, used for linking barrels, to hit the kid’s head with it.

Smith was then on the run, leaving his education behind, and ended up with family in Tallahassee, not knowing what happened to the boy. Many years later, the city of Cairo would honor him with a portrait in its library, where Smith ran into the white boy’s sister.

She told him what happened to the boy in the years after the incident, Smith's son said.

Smith II recalled what the woman told his father: “He lived through all that – he made it. He needed that hoop upside the head ... because it straightened him out. And he regretted what he did for the rest of his life. Sadly… he died wanting to see you again."

That event from his father's past was one of the driving forces behind Smith purchasing the house next to his mother's 16 years ago, at the corner of Albany Avenue and Cypress Street, his son said.

But first, Smith had to drive out some neighborhood drug dealers, Smith II said.

"The drug dealers that dad ran off came back. He found them in the library reading. ... They were kids. They didn't have any other outlet. He created an outlet for these people to do something differently,” he said.

“He created an atmosphere that there would not have to be excuses. He created an atmosphere where their lives would be better.”

When Smith’s mother, Eva Reynolds, died in 2005 at 96 years old she left her home to be a part of the library and museum for children, as well.

On Thanksgiving Day last year, Smith died of congestive heart failure at the age of 86 with his son by his side.

Smith II is honoring his father's legacy by revamping the space and programs offered.

Guidance counseling will be available to help young people transition from middle school to high school, and high school to college. Adult programs are also being implemented, like OSHA and environmental training.

Tonight at 7 p.m. there will be a celebration to honor Walter L. Smith's birthday, which was on May 13. The event will take place at the library at 905 N. Albany Ave. Guests are requested to wear orange and green attire.

A ribbon cutting for the Walter L. Smith Library and Museum will take place at 9 a.m. on Saturday. There will be African drummers, followed by a meal of fish and grits, and a panel discussion on the housing crisis in the Tampa Bay region.