As a teenager growing up in Louisville, Ky., Edwin “Rip” Smith rode multiple city buses each day, leaving his largely black neighborhood for the social isolation and academic rigor of a school in a white neighborhood.
He ate at segregated restaurants and swam in segregated public pools that were drained and cleaned before white children jumped in. But the decision to place himself on the front lines of efforts to dismantle segregated schools in the South was primarily his.
Smith, who went on to become the first black professor to receive tenure at the USC Gould School of Law, died last week in Los Angeles. He was 66.The death of the respected international and environmental policy lawyer was announced by the law school, where he continued to work despite progressively worsening multiple sclerosis. The cause of death was a heart attack, said Denelle Bentley, Smith’s former wife, who remained a close friend.
Smith’s Louisville was a city that responded to the Brown v. Board of Education decision by allowing black students to attend predominantly white schools but refusing to provide transportation. So for his four years of high school, Smith traversed the city to reach Atherton High School, where he was one of only four or five African-American students in his class.
“Rip wanted to achieve; he wanted to be the best,” said Lee Bishop, who befriended Smith while playing on the high school football team and roomed with him later at Harvard University. “He really wanted to go to West Point Military Academy and be the first black general.”
Elected president of the student council and voted “most likely to succeed,” Smith did not experience the violent clashes that marked the era of busing and forced desegregation in the South. School leaders were so oblivious that they asked him to follow tradition as the student body president and dress up as the school’s mascot — the Rebel — at football games. Smith politely declined, Bishop said.
“He put up with so many what they call microaggressions now,” Bishop said. “But he couldn’t confront everything because he couldn’t get through the day-to-day like that. He let all of that wash off.”
His West Point dreams dashed by a football injury, Smith turned his attention to classwork, later earning undergraduate and law degrees at Harvard. After graduation, he joined a Beverly Hills entertainment law firm, but left after several years to pursue his interest in environmental science as a staff attorney for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
In 1980, he began teaching at USC, which at the time did not have a single nonwhite tenured faculty member.
Bentley said it was not an accident that Smith continually broke color barriers.
“It was expected of him,” she said. “He was a third generation college graduate in his family. That’s really remarkable for a black family in the South, for someone of his age.”
Smith was born in Lexington, Ky., on May 11, 1950. His father was a dentist and his mother worked in his father’s clinic. The family moved to Louisville when Smith was a child.
He got the nickname “Rip” from his father, who was a fan of baseball major leaguer Rip Repulski and bestowed the outfielder’s name first on a family dog and later on his son.
After college, Smith told friends he had no plans to return home; in search of warmer weather and a more tolerant atmosphere, he found life in California a “relief,” Bishop said.
Colleagues at USC described Smith as an accomplished scholar whose intellectual curiosity led him from environmental law to international law. While on the faculty, he served as a policy advisor to the United States Arms Control and Disarmament Agency and lectured internationally on United Nations-NATO cooperation in peacekeeping. He rarely mentioned his early years under segregation.
“Rip spoke to me about his childhood in Louisville only once, towards the end of an otherwise forgettable faculty party,” USC law professor Gregory Keating wrote on the law school’s tribute page to Smith.
“What Rip had to say was characteristically low-key and modest, and entirely free of rancor or resentment. If you had just arrived from a different planet you wouldn't have known that he was describing his role in one of the most traumatic events in American history, nor that his self-effacing story was a tale of quiet heroism.”
Smith is survived by his son, Dylan Smith, 30, and his 90-year-old father, Edwin Smith.