Judge I. C. Smith, civil rights champion, dies at 89

 By CRA News Service

As Palm Beach County’s third black lawyer, I.C. Smith won a victory for all children when he almost single-handedly forced the Palm Beach County School District to teach white and black students together.

With legal know-how and personal strength, he successfully integrated schools, golf courses, department stores, the airport’s taxi service, and the turnpike’s restaurants and bathrooms through lawsuits and negotiations in the mid-1950s.

Mr. Smith, who served six years as a Palm Beach County Court judge, died shortly after midnight Tuesday at Pinecrest Rehabilitation Center. He was 89.

Mr. Smith had been sick since November last year when he fell and fractured his hip, family members said. He did not recover.

“He hadn’t been active since November,” his wife, Henrietta Mays Smith said on Wednesday. “That was the beginning of the
downslide. He never really came back from that.”

Along with his wife, other survivors include children, the Rev. Cynthia Smith Jackson and Robin Smith, a retired Delray Beach police officer; a sister, Dorothy Bender; two brothers, David Smith and Leroy Smith and sister-in-law Ruthye Smith. He also leaves behind a generation of Palm Beach County children whose lives he improved.

Born Isiah Courtney Smith in 1922 in a log cabin near Lake Helen, a small town near Sanford, Mr. Smith’s first and middle name was a well-guarded secret to most who knew him. He was known for sharing stories about his childhood, and how he was in the midst of 10 siblings and he was “the last of the second half.”

He often talked of how he trekked eight miles to elementary school each day. “The city had a school bus for the whites, all our friends, and we had to walk,” he once said.

That bothered his father, who eventually bought land and moved the family next to the black school.

In 1940, he graduated from Euclid High School in Deland and enrolled at then Florida A&M College. But World War II interrupted his education and Mr. Smith volunteered and was sent to the intake facility near Raiford.

It was in college where he met William Holland, Palm Beach County’s first black attorney and its pioneer in all matters of civil rights.  The two maintained a steadfast friendship, and in his journal, Mr. Smith penned that they promised to open a law firm together in Florida to serve “the people of our community.”

Three weeks after he had arrived at the intake facility and without being sworn in, Mr. Smith marched through the segregated camp to the white officers and un-volunteered. A year later, he was drafted, then rejected at the same camp.
Mr. Smith suspects they thought him a troublemaker.

During the war he worked building locomotives in Chester, Pa. that were eventually sent to Russia. He returned to college after the war and soon met Henrietta Mays, a librarian at the college. They fell in love.

Graduating with a history degree in 1947, he followed his girlfriend north to her New York home.

“I wasn’t interested in teaching school and I can’t stand blood so I didn’t want to go to med school,” he once said.

Mr. Smith went to Brooklyn Law School at night, worked in a factory making plastic horses during the day and courted Mays in between. They married Jan. 1, 1949.
After Mr. Smith earned his law degree in 1954, college friend Holland invited him south to join his practice on Rosemary Avenue Street.

In 1955, the pair sued to integrate the West Palm Beach municipal golf course.

A year later, they took on the School Board when Holland’s 6-year-old son was denied entrance to all-white Northboro Elementary in West Palm Beach, less than 2 miles from his home.

At the time, white and black students attended different schools, taught by white and black teachers, respectively. Even the textbooks for white and “Negro” students were kept in different warehouses. Two years earlier, the U.S. Supreme Court had
ruled that “separate but equal” was unconstitutional, but the ruling had been mostly ignored in Palm Beach County.

The same year, they sued the state to eliminate separate eating and bathroom facilities on Florida’s Turnpike.

“Nothing separate can ever be equal,” Mr. Smith once said.

Although Mr. Smith often made the presentations in court in the civil rights cases, he credited Holland with the tenacity that finally integrated county schools in 1973 after 16 years of court battles.

The law firm of Holland and Smith became a landmark on Rosemary Avenue, downtown West Palm Beach, and the pair practiced for 32 years until Gov. Bob Graham appointed Mr. Smith as a judge.

As a judge, he had a deliberate even-handed mannerism, which put those on the other side of the bench at ease. He would at times coax them gently through the cases.

In one hearing,  his delicate questioning persuaded a Glades Correctional Institution inmate to drop a lawsuit against a former girlfriend he said had promised to marry him.

“His heart was hurting,” Smith said and advised the prisoner that it would heal with time.

He was the judge on the well-known Cat Lady case. He ruled that Trini Fahy could keep her eight cats and sharply scolded county animal control officials for trying to charge her $215 for boarding them while the case was decided.

Mr. Smith gave state politicians no more deference than he gave the owner of a vicious dog. When then-state Sen. Don Childers appealed a $1,878 fine over failure to obtain a building permit, claiming the Legislature was in session, Mr. Smith gave him no sympathy.

“I had to learn to listen carefully and not be overly aggressive. Even though you have a lot of power as a judge, you don’t want to put yourself in the position of God Almighty,” he said.

He retired after six years at the age of 70, as prescribed by state law.

During his retirement years, Mr. Smith could be seen outside his home on the corner of NW 2nd Street and NW 12th Avenue tending his well-manicured lawn. Immediately following breakfast, he would head outside where he would spend hours while his wife stayed indoors.

“He loved the yard. That was his thing,” his sister Dorothy Bender said.  “That was the family trait though. He enjoyed working outside and gardening. All of us – his nieces and nephews – worked in the yard.”

Mr. Smith served as a church administrator at Trinity Methodist Church, West Palm Beach, and he sang in the Gospel Choir and the Male Choir. He also was a member of Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity, Inc.

Services are pending.

 

Share your comments at editor@delraybeachtribune.com or 561-665-0151.

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About Pedro Heizer

I'm a person of simple taste, all I need is some country music, Batman, Star Wars, sports, coffee, and most importantly Jesus Christ, because what profits a man if he gains the whole world and loses his soul? View all posts by Pedro Heizer

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