Herbert Smith, The Sage Of 16th Avenue, Still Sharp At 90

Monday, September 27, 2021 || By Michael Romain || @maywoodnews 

Herbert Smith’s relatives call him a historian for a reason.

On Sept. 26, several dozen relatives and friends gathered at Smith’s on the 1600 block of South 16th Avenue in Maywood to celebrate his 90th birthday.

During a brief pause from the festivities, Smith walked into a bedroom in his home and pointed to an old photo of Nan Haraway hanging on the wall.

Haraway, Smith’s great-grandmother, was born enslaved in 1847, in a small town located within the Florence – Muscle Shoals metropolitan area, home to the world-famous Muscle Shoals Sound Studio (where artists from Aretha Franklin to the Rolling Stones have recorded).

Herbert Smith, seated second to left, and his relatives wave as a birthday car caravan passes by his Maywood home on Sept. 27. | Michael Romain 

“She had two kids in slavery and when slavery was over, she had managed to give her and those kids property,” Smith said of Haraway. “She gave each one of them a house. Some of that property is still in our hands today.”

Smith said his great-grandmother, who died in 1921, was a housemaid whose owner gave her the plot of land once she was freed.

“The same thing happened with another family around there,” said Smith, before telling the story of another slave who was born and reared in the area where Haraway lived.

Herbert Smith shows a photo of his mother, Johnnie Harden, who lived to be 96, and his great-grandmother, Nan Haraway, who was born enslaved. | Michael Romain 

“I’m trying to think of his name, but my memory is getting a little fuzzy,” Smith said, although he can be forgiven for the oversight, considering his sharpness and acuity (he’s more alert than people decades younger).

Smith may have been thinking about Jermiah Haralson, an Alabama slave at 18 and a congressman at 28.

Haralson, who was a state senator before going to Washington, D.C., served a single term in Congress from 1875 to 1877, according to the online historical archive of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Moments like these are why many community members consider Smith the community sage, the keeper of tradition and a natural storyteller.

Smith pictured with his children (right to left): Michael Smith, Renee Guthrie, Kenny Smith, Michele Smith and Jerome Womack. | Michael Romain 

“I can sit and talk to him for hours about everything,” said Smith’s grandson, Michael Smith, 34, during the birthday gathering, which started off with a car caravan.

“He knows everything,” Michael said. “He knows everything about what’s going on, because history definitely repeats itself and he knows that.”

Granddaughters Kami Smith and Amanda Smith said their grandfather taught them more than history.

“He taught us emotional literacy and financial literacy,” they said, almost in unison, before launching into a litany of other literacies.

Herbert Smith waves as a Maywood firetruck passes by during the car caravan held Sunday to celebrate his 90th birthday. | Michael Romain 

On Sunday, the family members wore t-shirts emblazoned with a photo of Herbert as a young soldier.

Herbert was born in Alabama, one of 21 children (15 were his mother’s and six were his father’s, he said), adding that his mother, Johnnie Harden, died at 96.

Herbert served in the Korean War as truck mechanic before he was discharged and moved to Maywood in 1954. He married his wife, Mary Ann, in 1957, and the couple had five children, including two sets of twins.

Herbert Smith poses for a photo with his sisters Anita Thompson, 84, (pictured seated on the left), Christine Elliott, 86, (pictured seated on the right), along with his children and grandchildren. | Michael Romain 

During Sunday’s birthday gathering, Herbert was surrounded by a throng of relatives, including siblings Christine Elliott, Anita Thompson and Kenneth Harden.

Harden said he moved to Maywood in 1970 after serving in the Air Force. He drove for a variety of companies, including Greyhound, Robinson Coach, Royal American and Chicago Classic before retiring in 2020.

Carol Womack — who said Herbert raised her husband, Jerome Womack, like his son — explained that in addition to being a source of knowledge, the 90-year-old griot and patriarch has also been a source of stability.

“You know when you’re married, you need that person to help you through the marriage? That was Herbert for me and my husband,” Carol said. “Herbert and Mary Ann were like our rock.”

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