Memphis Black History: From rejection to running the school board

It took about 45 years, but Maxine Smith went from not being accepted to a school based on her race to joining that school's highest governing body.
At Memphis’ National Civil Rights Museum, tourists exploring the space can see Memphis’ importance in the Civil Rights Movement.

One of the most important figures in that movement for our city was Maxine Smith, who was born in Memphis in 1929. She had a brilliant mind; she graduated from Booker T. Washington High School at the age of 15.

By the age of 19, Smith had earned her bachelors’ degree in Biology from Spelman College. In time, she had also received her masters’ degree in French from Middlebury College in Vermont.

How did Maxine from Memphis end up in Vermont? The state of Tennessee paid her tuition for Middlebury. They paid her tuition for Middlebury rather than allow her to attend a white institution in the south for her graduate studies.

Smith became an assistant professor in French at Prairie View A&M in Texas, Florida A&M in Tallahassee, and LeMoyne College in Syracuse, NY. In 1955, at age 25, she got married to Vasco Smith, who was a dentist and civil rights activist from Memphis. She wanted to move back home.

In 1957, Smith applied to take graduate classes at Memphis State University. Still, she was denied admission because of her race. It had been three years since the Brown v. Board of Education verdict, and Smith vowed to fight.

She fought not only for herself, but also for all of Black Memphis.

Smith joined the Memphis branch of the NAACP. She helped organize sit-ins, marches, voter registration drives and boycotts. She was a major voice in the “If You’re Black, Take it Back” campaign, which boycotted businesses that refused to integrate.

In 1961, Smith accompanied the Memphis 13, who were 13 Black first graders who integrated Bruce, Gordon, Rozelle, and Springdale elementary schools, to their first day of classes.

She served on the coordinating committee for the sanitation workers' strike in 1968.

In 1971, Smith became the first African-American appointed to the Memphis Board of Education. She served as the board president from 1991 to 1995. But best of all, in 1994, Maxine was elected by the governor to serve on the Tennessee Board of Regents, which is the governing body for most public colleges and universities in the state.

It took about 45 years, but Maxine went from not being accepted to a school based on her race to joining that school's highest governing body. She found the power to make it happen through fighting for the rights of other students who like herself just wanted the opportunity to an equal education.

Read more articles by Morgan Beckford.

Morgan Beckford is a long-time Memphian, performing musician and educator. Currently, she serves as the coordinator of in-school partnerships for the Memphis Music Initiative and summer conservatory director for Opera Memphis. 
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