Duane Smith and Jean Cunningham

Recorded December 27, 2006 Archived December 27, 2006 00:00 minutes
Audio not available

Interview ID: wtc000980


Duane Smith talks about taking up theology, becoming social activist in his church.

Subject Log / Time Code

- Becoming area coordinator of SCLC. His church being bombed and destroyed, police and FBI persecuting him.
Sheriff in Florida was Klan member, so church attack never investigated.
- Being outraged by injustice, compelled to act.
- man attempting to kill him at Planned Parenthood.


  • Duane Smith
  • Jean Cunningham


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00:04 My name is Jean Cunningham. I am 43 years old. It is December 27th 2006 and we are in the lower Manhattan storycorps and I am my interviewees daughter youngest daughter name is Duane Smith. I'm 75 years old. Today is December 28th.

00:31 2006 we are in.

00:35 The lower Manhattan

00:38 Location of storycorps and I am the father of

00:43 Jean Cunningham

00:47 So I am going to start in if it's okay with some questions about life growing up. It's it's one of those things that I've never sat and heard what is like or what it was like and how you got to be the person you are. So we'll start with some Basics if that's okay and just ask about when and where you were born to get that kind of established and then tell me about your parents.

01:14 I was born in Cleveland, Ohio because my mother had been told by

01:22 Her doctor that she should not have any more children and although I didn't live in Cleveland.

01:31 The doctor had said that if she had more children she died and so

01:37 My father took me took her to the Cleveland Clinic so that should get extra special treatment at a clinic because we didn't live in Cleveland. We live in a little Country Town 30 miles from Cleveland OH there and stay for an extra. Of time.

02:00 I was born naturally. It wasn't a cesarean birth or anything like that, but

02:07 It was a hard birth for her and it was a life-threatening experience. So she had to have it done at the clinic at the clinic in Cleveland.

02:16 And what are your earliest memories of your parents?

02:20 Well, I'm a depression baby and my father.

02:25 Was one of those businessmen who went bankrupt in the crash of the stock market in 1929. He lost he had a small men's clothing store out in Ohio and I'll not forget the day as long as I live when he came home.

02:48 And told my mother that he'd lost everything and so we had to sell our house and our car and everything. We had and move out on a farm out in.

02:59 The further out into the country and my earliest memory of them is

03:06 That they became sauce from staining and able to get themselves through those Depression years by raising their own animals chickens and cows.

03:21 Their own vegetables. I remember I remember that on that farm and I was only five or six years old and I remember my father milking the cows and

03:31 Taking care of it and doing everything even to the extent that my mother was able to provide food for the Beggars who came to the door and there were a lot of beggars in those days in the 30s when

03:46 People were just wiped out people are just destroyed but then

03:53 My father was one of these men was the Protestant work ethic and he was determined that he was going to get back on his feet and the war started in 1940-41.

04:09 And

04:11 He

04:13 Immediately went back to the companies that he had bankrupted are gone bankrupt with and made a promise to them that he would repay everything that he owed them if they would loan him enough clothing to get restarted in business, which he did in 1940 and he really made a good business in 1941 through the Warriors and through the 1940s and after the war and he was making of a really good income and he paid back every debt he owed and

04:53 I guess.

04:57 Part of it. I think God in Me somehow. I don't know. Maybe it's in the genes. I don't know but

05:03 He was determined that he was not going to.

05:06 Have his name with a bad credit rating with Dun & Bradstreet. So he he worked and paid it all off.

05:18 The warriors were

05:21 Hard years for me because I was with three older brothers.

05:29 All of them are draft age and my mother.

05:35 Just cried every night because they were

05:40 Stationed in dangerous places when was in the

05:44 What was called the Seabees and his job was to take

05:54 The wires off of these mines on minesweepers and he would go underwater and my other brother was in the Army engineers.

06:06 Was that Jack earlier Jack his job was to be dropped by Parachute behind the Enemy Lines before the Marines invaded blow up the bridges and get the place prepared what she did on Okinawa. Okay, and so

06:27 I had to watch that I was too young and I never was drafted AJ.

06:34 I went through.

06:38 Grade school and went through Junior High and high school and I think I was I would have been about 15 when the war ended. So I was too young ever to be drafted. Although after I finished high school and went on to college. I went in and went into Divinity School. I didn't list as a Chaplain but our denomination has a quota system and they told me that the chances were I would never get called up there were so many ahead of me.

07:13 So well

07:16 I

07:18 Went ahead and finished Divinity School and then started out in.

07:25 In the ministry in the rural church, and then I got in trouble, but tell me how you decided.

07:38 To go from high school to college. Is it going to be school? What did you what were your early school years like and why was Divinity School is not I don't know how, no choice it was then but I don't think it's a common choice now with your family spiritual or religious or was this. How did you make that choice?

08:00 Jack had the biggest influence on me he was

08:12 And

08:15 Believe it or not. The reason he got interested in Divinity School was by a Billy Graham crusade and that sounds so incongruous is both you and him denomination and being a liberal Church background, but that

08:38 Just piqued his interest and so he he went to Oberlin and applied and got accepted. My father had really planned for all four boys to have their own store their own men's clothing store called. Okay? Okay one in Painesville and one in Mentor and I had the one in Metter and Jack head and Oliver had the two in Willoughby and Eugene had the one Painesville, okay.

09:21 My father had the thought that we would develop a chain of Smith Brothers J A Smith & Sons clothing stores throughout Ohio. That was his hope but he was he was quite disappointed that

09:39 The Jack decided not to go on and business but instead wanted to go on and try Divinity School. He wanted to try it to see if you wanted to do it and he once he got there, of course, he you found it very exciting and interesting and he was really the influence on me. I was

10:00 Of the age of the Korean War not World War. I was in Ohio West Bend from 49 to 53. And so I would have been eligible for draft in the Korean War immediately upon graduation from college, but I would the head your question was how did I get into the school? I pre enrolled at Oberlin and I was accepted and classified as 5H which is the lowest draft classification. There is

10:37 And then I got accepted at Yale.

10:43 My senior year at Ohio Wesleyan. I applied on a lark. I didn't think I had a ghost of a chance of getting into Yale and I did and so I went there in 53 from 53 to 57 what that the farthest away from your family you had been.

11:07 Well, it had at the time probably the theological Giants of the 20th century the niebuhr brothers and Paul tillich and

11:17 Rudolph bolt Bonnie's name don't mean anything to you, but they were really the the giant theologians of the 20th century and I I couldn't turn that down Oberlin was an excellent school and ranked High academically as you know in Ohio. It's probably ranked number one, but Yale had so many more outstanding faculty. It wasn't difficult Choice. Believe me. I I knew that's where I was going once I got accepted.

11:52 I was very close to Phi Beta Kappa, but I didn't quite make it. I had a straight A average from high school and about a 3.35 hours from Ohio Wesleyan, and then that was enough to get me into Yale plus the

12:10 Extracurricular activities that I was so much involved in it. I'll with me when you are assuming that you would go into the clothing store business. I'm in until this is sorted for the clothing store business until this happened to Jack.

12:31 I hate you. I just went along when I was the only student in my class. Not a member of the ROTC just to give you an idea of how unusual and rare. I wasn't every guy there was figuring out some way to get out of being drafted. So they all join the ROTC and became second lieutenants and went out from that for 2 more years in the military and then they were done with her military, but I didn't have any I was never called up tell me a little bit about Grandma Smith cuz I have I have memories of a grandpa Smith as being this kind of stern compact didn't smile a lot. That he was on loving but he was just you with Grandpa Smith and Grandma Smith. I think it was kind of rounder and softer and a little Halo of white hair. I mean typical

13:31 But she was pretty strong herself my mother 1.

13:41 I got into Duke Divinity School and became active in.

13:45 Are you social issues? She really stood behind me strongly. She she played the role very well of the domestic, you know housewife and mother and all that and she never had a job in her entire life times never work for income should never had to once my father got back on his feet, but she was a very very

14:15 Strong-minded person of very deep conviction and she dared to stand up to my father on a lot of these things that he was very conservative about. She didn't go along with me. Do you know how they met?

14:32 They eloped.

14:36 My father was 16 years older than my mother. I don't know if you're available and

14:44 The speculation is that

14:47 Her family did not approve of her Marrying an older man. She was 21 and he was 37.

14:56 And so to solve the problem of the conflict created by

15:02 Her doing this they eloped and went over to some place in New York. I forget Silver Springs New York. Is that right? Could be Natalie and a Ontario there the Pew and

15:20 Five cities right there in a row at the end of the lake and that they drove over there and you loped which was very much unlike my mother and father. They traditionally mother was Episcopal in my father was a disciple of Christ out of West, Virginia.

15:43 Southern Ohio and they compromised and became what was then known as the congregation was and how I got into the Congregational Church in Painesville role did religion play for you growing up. I was so straighten school and it just wasn't

16:05 Imaginable, I I had a perfect attendance record and church and Sunday school from first grade to the 12th grade. I don't know why I just I got into it and it became sort of a thing with me and I was active in the youth group in the church had a girlfriend and all through the years and had dates with her on Sunday nights.

16:39 We went through.

16:41 Let's see all all 12 years from the same now. We were on Dunn Avenue, which was out in the country and then we move back out of the fire and we were on Wood Street in Painesville. Okay, so I could walk.

16:58 Assistant that was my church background was really

17:05 Motivated more from

17:10 The tradition of the popularity of religion in the in the 40s and 50s. I mean it what religion was really riding.

17:20 The wave of approval in those days. It wasn't the mainline denominations were not on the decline as they are now in so

17:29 It was the popular thing to do. That's about the best thing I can say that.

17:37 Play

17:40 I I stayed with it and kept on right through at Ohio Wesleyan die. I got messed up in fraternity life and act given that got out of religion pretty much I didn't major in religion because

18:00 I didn't want to be identified as a pre feel one of these guys and they were looked upon as kind of.

18:09 Eccentric characters in

18:13 My activities were really in the fraternity and in the debating team, I was captain of the debate team at Ohio Wesleyan for 2 years and

18:25 I

18:27 Was president of fraternity and

18:31 Got wrapped up in a lot of that and I regret it. I wish I had and I wish I had spent more time.

18:37 On my studies my school work and instead of this nonsense at that time fraternities were also very popular and very important for social standing and all that.

18:53 Devon on the hill what was held in 53 and

19:04 I it was mind-blowing just absolutely mind-blowing II was a the most conservative Midwestern Ohio Republican that you ever saw and to go there and to be exposed to these CLI theological Giants to get a whole new life experience in terms of going into New Haven and

19:37 Mixing with I think every student in my in my class or 140 in my class was a Phi Beta Kappa, except me.

19:51 It just really blew me open it open me up soda. It was a whole new world a whole new experience then I'm so thankful that I did it and not go to Overland and stay in, Ohio.

20:06 Get radicalized me. I have to say that that's where I became the rebel I guess.

20:16 How did that without a slow process was that was there someone there who particularly was you feel are we opened your eyes? I have the Good Fortune of spending one year as a roommate of Harvey Cox. I don't know if you know, you know his name from Harvard. He's a prominent Professor to Divinity School there now just retired.

20:44 And we had just Endless Night Time conversations and talks and I was also a classmate of Bill coffin the head of the anti-war movement and I had the same experience with him. So

21:01 I had many many conversations with both of them and

21:07 There you just can't not be influenced by people like this. They're so powerful in their thinking and so so much farther along than I was.

21:22 That that became important to me and

21:27 That was how I ended up getting into the first couple days. Later.

21:39 I went to my first church was in East Bloomfield New York for 5 years.

21:47 And I

21:51 I I knew within a year or two after being there that the parish Ministry was just not my Mike future at the biggest event in the Life year of this church was an antique show and they spend a month getting ready for this antique show and the money made from that antique show provided half of the budget of the church for the whole year and I just didn't

22:26 To me it made no sense that.

22:29 I had all this preparation in theological background and training to go out and do antique shows and strawberry festivals and been going all this other stuff that I was seeing as being

22:46 Characteristic of of the churches that were I was familiar with and that's exactly what was going on. So I applied to what was called the division of church extension of the denomination in New York City here and asked if there were any

23:08 Places in the country where there were no churches of our denomination if I could be considered for it while there is just so happened that

23:22 There was an opening in Florida and

23:27 They

23:29 They took me to go to Delray Beach Florida in 1960. I would have allowed in 60w interviewed in 61 and I went down in the end of 61 62 and and started a new church from scratch at work. That's just hard work knocking on doors at that level really going on beating the pavement and knocking on doors and he can have space we had no building we had no nothing. We had an old garage that we had our meetings in at the beginning and then there was an old Southern Baptist Church that was

24:13 The building was deteriorated so that they were

24:18 They got out of it and build a new one and they allowed us to use that hold our services in for the first year that I was down there and then the building collapsed and there was a Delray Beach Playhouse and they let us hold services in that for a while and then

24:40 By the time I had been there three years. We had a new church building put up. Okay, and

24:48 I built the congregation up to about close to 300 members in that time, but it was a typical, Florida.

25:01 Eat Gold Coast City in that

25:05 As you know that the Northerners come down from October to April April and then the city's empty from then on and every Sunday from October on there'd be three or four hundred people in congregation and then in July, there'd be 50 if I was lucky.

25:27 But

25:29 It was through my contact with Bill coffin that and Harvey Cox that I became the area coordinator for the southern Christian leadership conference for the Gold Coast of Florida the east coast and

25:48 I begat I began to get active in the civil rights movement and civil rights work and

25:58 I don't know. How much is this you want to hear but I dying Red Hen. Well it was.

26:04 It was a frightening experience. I

26:09 I was responsible for organizing the marches in St. Augustine and in Birmingham and in

26:20 Try to think of the other cities Daytona.

26:24 I organized three of them and when I came back from the march in St Augustine.

26:31 They had Dynamite at the church and I had also.

26:36 It's a brand new building. They

26:42 Florida is built on Sand and they have no basements. So

26:49 We have they have sprinkler systems to water the lawn and whoever did the damage you broke the caps on all the sprinkler systems and flooded the whole building. So everything was destroyed.

27:05 How did the FBI came to my office and handcuffed me and took me to the sheriff and arrested me because they said it was my fault interesting perspective. How was the how did the rest of your congregation respond to all of the sole and we're strongly disapproved of it further made it work out that I was receiving just endless anonymous.

27:34 Threat letters and telephone calls at 3 in the morning and that was frightening it really that's what upset me and

27:45 I reached a point where I felt it. I was trapped I couldn't get out and when they handcuffed me and turn me over the FBI handcuffed me they came to my office one day literally and to a FBI agents and took me to the sheriff.

28:05 And handed me to him and said take good care of Reverend Smith and I

28:15 I was watching and I saw.

28:19 The FBI agent wink to the sheriff when he said it and the sheriff said, yeah, we'll take good care of him. And I knew I was a dead man.

28:31 So the FBI said to me, we'll put a guard on your house for 30 days and they did and they tapped and bugged our phone lines your

28:45 About a year-and-a-half older two or three and they

28:53 They did Total surveillance of everything. I did I couldn't leave the house for a while. I sent you and Kathy and carry done with your mother to stay with her mother Miami Beach cuz I was worried about your safety and

29:11 Then

29:15 I stayed in the house most of the time but the FBI said after 30 days you have to carry a gun and I refuse to carry a gun because I don't believe in guns at for one thing and for another thing they were shooting civil rights workers and claiming self-defense if they had guns on them and one of my best friends was killed Bill Edwards this way and so I said no no way cancel. I desperately started contacting.

29:54 My connections up north to get out of Florida to somehow to get out. I had 30 days to get out and I contacted.

30:06 New York and Massachusetts and Connecticut and Ohio and Vermont and New Hampshire which are all congregational stronghold big churches numbers of churches.

30:20 And

30:23 Bags at Misfits I can get out in what hurt so much was that

30:30 They all wrote back and said what's wrong with you?

30:35 What why are you wanting to do this or must be something wrong with you that you would want to get out of Florida that you would want to leave a new church you just built and luckily.

30:48 The guy who was the area Minister for the church that I had served in East Bloomfield remembered me and gave my name to the church in Poughkeepsie.

31:01 Which was a dying Inner City Church. I was the 85th candidate for the Poughkeepsie City Church. 85 men before me turned it down because it was a split divided dying Church half the people want to move out of the city and half wanted to stay there. So nobody would touch it while I was desperate for a church and they were desperate for a minister and that's how I got to Poughkeepsie + 64 + 65 +

31:36 That I unlock should I go on with this? I mean do you have any well, that's when I got mixed up in the air. I wore movement with Bill coffin and I became the equivalent of that position with a group called clergy and laymen concerned about Vietnam and I was area director for that for Metropolitan New York area. New York City but above north of New York Westchester County up and I went on

32:13 All those marches and I participated I I was

32:20 I became acquainted with dr. King and I got well, I got a queen with dr. King in the south in the Civil Rights Movement. But I also got acquainted with him in the anti-war movement when I came up to Poughkeepsie, and I really got to know him better.

32:39 Up up here up in New York when he got into the anti-war movement and the clergy and laymen concerned group then it was Bill coffee. And dr. King and dr. Spock and Harvey Cox and there were four or five others. Very prominent clergyman who are all heading that move running. They all just happened to be classmates of my good friends of mine who owns Divinity School and I have a propensity for this somehow for the church didn't approve of it. They didn't like it.

33:23 They

33:25 Held meetings as matter fact, the deacons called a meeting of the congregation and voted on whether or not to continue me and

33:37 This is just what I wanted online and I'm to the point that I reached a point where I said I can't go on and love this and so I went over to the Community College and inquired about teaching and

33:52 I present the college was a member of my congregation and knew me and he

34:01 Welcome to me and let me start teaching part-time and 71 and then I went in full-time and 72 and I left the church. Do you have any regrets?

34:17 I have no regrets. I I regret certain aspects of of church life and Parish life.

34:30 Good. The United Church of Christ is probably the most liberal denomination in America more so than the unitarians and

34:41 When I

34:43 When I got into that and got into the

34:48 Performance of same-sex marriages and Planned Parenthood and I became president of Planned Parenthood and I was also involved in the anti-war movement. And I don't know if this is something that runs in Smith jeans or what but

35:09 I

35:11 I got very much involved in all of these things that were just too controversial for the church, and I could not see.

35:20 Going on for the rest of my life in in appear in a situation where people didn't approve of what I was doing and

35:31 I was I I felt I was doing what I should be doing as a minister.

35:39 But

35:44 It was a very unsettling experience to go through in that in that I think was the most existentially threatening moment of my life when I was in Florida and I felt I was trapped that I couldn't get out. Did they ever find out who hadn't done the damage Sheriff of Palm Beach County was the the Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan they suspect that.

36:24 Let the clan did it the damage and they suspect that.

36:29 Believe it or not. I'm ashamed to say they suspect that most of the anonymous they have all of this stuff on their files and they gave me one of these.

36:41 Heavy plastic containers you're supposed to put anything you get so you don't get your fingerprints on it because they want the FBI wants to fingerprint it and

36:53 I was but anything that came like that I was supposed to put right into that. I still have that plastic container home, but

37:03 I was supposed to turn that over to them and they suspect that it came from people was in my congregation and that made it all the way.

37:17 So I continued on that and started in.

37:22 The prison teaching back in 69 70 and then in that ever since still there.

37:36 It is a natural step but on the other hand it says it's a fairly unusual thing to do. How did you get involved with that? What was the connection there and teaching the first time you want to do that?

37:53 I think there's a part of me that is just naive. That's all I can say. I I've never in all the years I've been in.

38:04 I've been in the worst prisons are our Greenhaven is a multi Maximum Security Prison, and I've never felt afraid.

38:15 I've been afraid of the guards but I don't feel afraid of the inmates that I don't know. Do you feel like you're making a difference in these guys are absolutely I really see light bulbs go on the net.

38:30 Then that's what makes it valuable and worthwhile to me to continue doing it experience in the prisons changed over the last 10 years has turkey abolished all inmate education. So there isn't any income that you're still there. There's no no credit now no credit. They will get college credit from Boricua College here in New York City of Puerto Rican College when they are released from prison, but

39:08 They don't they don't get the credit until they get out. I don't know what it is weather.

39:18 It's just being naive or being.

39:23 Optimistic well

39:29 I know this this sounds terribly egotistic egocentric, but I I feel that I have a personality very much like Martin Luther King did

39:42 Injustice just drives me crazy. I just can't stand it when I see it in our society and

39:53 What I see discrimination and homophobia and racism and sexism and heterosexism in these things and hear it in people. It just puts me in a rage.

40:11 And King was the same way.

40:14 You just can't sit still and not get into it and get involved in it. The guy that tried to kill me when I was the head of Planned Parenthood came into my office and

40:28 And said

40:30 I've come here because God has sent me to clean up the College of people like you.

40:37 And you know you wonder where their heads at their they're crazy.

40:47 Somebody's got to have some sense in some sanity with respect to what's going on in.

40:54 In what? It means really to be a religious person and I may not be

41:02 A religious person in the sense of organized religion today, but I feel myself to be a very religious person in terms of my my Ministry and my working what I've done and I the only regret I have is it if I had it to do over again I would have

41:23 Iams, I would have gone out of it on from Yale and gotten my PhD then and gone right into college teaching which I should have done instead of wasting that 19 years in those three different churches.

41:39 And then

41:41 I could have done anything. I wanted to do and in these issues getting involved in if I would have had the freedom to do it.

41:50 I don't know if this is just a wrong impression the way you characterize at it. It sounds as though you feel that your greatest impact may not have been through church and through being a minister. But I wonder in terms of the younger generations of people coming through church and your interaction with the youth groups and with the younger adults, if you feel you had an impact I reach the younger people and that's one of the things I remember is just the connections the kids off at her house that the older people I was hopeless. They couldn't wait to get rid of me.

42:34 I don't have.

42:37 Regrets about it, except I miss

42:41 Maybe the community if there's a community I in every church. I was a minister. I was the only Democrat

42:51 I'm not joking. There was not another Democrat.

42:55 And I couldn't how can you minister to people that you can't communicate with terms of issues and this sort of thing and who resent what you're doing in terms of the issues using religious people out of you involved in

43:18 I mentioned the antique show in East Bloomfield the biggest event of the year in the Delray Beach church was what they called the Poinsettia tea.

43:30 Very exciting. I'm sure he work for months organizing this thing and raised.

43:42 10 $20,000 of the budget of the church at

43:47 I wasn't going to that wasn't my life. I'm sorry.

43:52 More important things to the truth

43:56 Well, I'm going to wrap it up. I think it's at but I am going to choose one last question the off of the list and this is just a silly want to have a nickname growing up. And where did that come from Dwayne? Of course?

44:13 It came I first got it at College at Ohio Wesleyan.

44:24 A grandmother who couldn't pronounce my name who called me drain and Oliver picked it up and started calling me Doreen and I'll Jack Still does to my grandmother had a speech impediment and couldn't say Dwayne. She said drain said rain and gorgeous just grabbed a hold of him. That's what I was known as butt.

44:53 That wasn't a nickname. That was just a thing. They picked up but in college if you ask for Duane Smith, no one would have known who you were.

45:05 Asking for if they just said do it now where they got me but and it's stuck all the way through.

45:13 My bachelor's my Master's and my PhD.

45:19 And then three of got lost somewhere along the way.

45:24 Well, that's it for me. Anything else any closing comments?

45:30 Done too much now. Thank you. I don't know what our time is. Are we we got the 5 minute warning just a few minutes ago. So I think we're good. Thank you.