Teacher, historian, preacher’s wife – Dr. Theodora Smith made an impact

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By Greg Summers

Dr. Theodora Smith spent two big chunks of her life in Lancaster.
From 1959 to ’72, she taught school as her husband led one of the city’s largest African-American congregations. Later, after his death, she came back to her adopted hometown, co-wrote the county’s definitive black history book and led an active life as a scholar and civic leader.
Theodora Shippy Smith died Thursday. She was 98.
“We’re talking about a classy lady in every sense who always brought wisdom to everything she was involved in, and she was actively involved in everything,” said the Rev. Wayne Murray, president of the Lancaster County NAACP.
“In the future, someone might come along beside Theodora Smith, but you’ll never replace her,” he said. “And if someone does come alongside, they have some very big shoes to fill.”
Smith gravitated toward history, though her son, Charles Smith Jr., isn’t sure if she ever taught it in the classroom.
“I know she taught social studies, but I’m not sure if she ever taught history,” he said.
While she was born and grew up in Gaffney, Smith had a deep attachment to Lancaster.
She came here for the first time in 1959 when her husband, Dr. Charles M. Smith Sr., was named pastor at Mount Zion AME Zion Church on East Barr Street.
“She was a very disciplined person and was the family nucleus, which was good for us,” said Smith Jr.
With a master’s degree from Howard University, Smith was hired to teach social studies at Barr Street High School. She also taught math and science.    
“Whenever a teacher was needed, Mother would step up. She always said that anyone who can read can teach anything, if they just apply themselves,” said Smith Jr.
Smith was also the first black teacher assigned to the formerly all-white North Junior High School in 1970, though she was only on the North faculty for two years.
Smith Sr. was an AME Zion pastor for 26 years. Besides Lancaster, he also served at churches in Rogersville, Tenn., and Albemarle, N.C., and Philadelphia.
The couple left Lancaster in 1972 when he was appointed president of the AME Zion-affiliated Lomax-Hannon Junior College in Greenville, Ala.
After earning her doctorate, Theodora Smith joined the Lomax-Hannon staff as her husband’s executive assistant and director of the college’s federal programs and Upward Bound.
Smith Sr. died in 1977, and Theodora Smith stayed at the college until 1982, when she moved back to Lancaster. 
“They kept their second house here the whole time,” said Smith Jr. “She developed a more nostalgic spirit about Lancaster, I guess, because we stayed here longer than any other place.”

Black history book
In the early 1990s, Theodora Smith and fellow retired educator Mary Mackey Robertson started co-writing the  highly regarded local African American history, “Lancaster County Black History: A Photographic and Literary Document 1785-1991,” with the help of the county’s black heritage committee. Thoroughly researched, the book took several years to complete and has become the local authority on the county’s black history.
At the time, the groundbreaking publication was the only book of its kind in the state and one of the first like it in the nation. Smith and Robertson, a member of the local school district’s Education Hall of Fame, revised the book in 2002.
“She always wanted to talk about history. And anytime anybody asked her, if she didn’t have the answer she would look it up,” said Polly Jackson, a retired educator and former Lancaster County Council chair.
In a February 2002 interview with The Lancaster News, Dr. Smith said it was obvious that a written black history of Lancaster County was nowhere to be found.
“Most of the history was passed down by word of mouth and that was it,” she said. “We felt, for the sake of future generations, that we should compile all the black history in Lancaster.”

In children’s book
Dr. Smith was honored in an unusual fashion earlier this year when she became one of the three characters in the local children’s book “Wow! That happened in Lancaster.”
The book was written by David Knight, the Lancaster County School District’s public information director, as part of the Read Across America initiative. It features three main characters, siblings Lindsay and Louise, based on local historian Lindsay Pettus and his sister, Louise Pettus, and Theodora, after Theodora Smith.
“I wanted a person from our African-American community who had a heart for Lancaster, and when I talked with others, all of them pointed to her,” Knight said of Smith.
“She loved history in general and especially the history of this community.”
The book was also turned into a video through a partnership with Lancaster County and features 25 local readers sharing the adventure of Lindsay, Louise and Theodora, as they travel across the county visiting historical landmarks.
The readers include Jackson, Murray, Lancaster County Sheriff Barry Faile, local attorney and historian Robert Folks, Catawba Nation historian Beckee Garris, S.C. Rep. Brandon Newton, and school Superintendent Jonathan Phipps, as well as others.
Murray said he met Smith in 1989, not too long after moving to Lancaster. She was also a lifetime member of the NAACP.
Smith’s funeral is 2:30 p.m. Saturday at Mount AME Zion Church. Viewing is 1-7 p.m. Friday at McMullen Funeral Home. Her full obituary is on Page 4.
To view the video of “Wow! That happened in Lancaster,” visit www.thelancasternews.com.

Follow reporter Greg Summers on Twitter @GregSummersTLN or contact him at (803) 283-1156.


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