C.J. Smith, A Masterclass

When I moved to Dallas for the first time (albeit, I have lived in Dallas County most of my life), I knew very little about the history of the city of Dallas and how its development was inextricably tied to Richardson with the majority of Richardson ISD being located in Dallas proper. I was intrigued early on by the rich history of my city, especially anything to do with its schools and communities. 

As a new superintendent does, when seeking to build context and relationships, I connected early on with city officials (think Mayor Mike Rawlings), business partners (think Texas Instruments), parent groups (think PTA),  and community builders (think Curtis J. Smith). 

Mr. Curtis J. Smith was a longtime resident of the Hamilton Park community in Dallas, and by longtime, I mean that he built his home there in 1955 and was one of its original residents. I met him for the first time in 2017, when he was 92 years young, and his words were to have a profound impact on my perspective moving forward. Very unassuming and soft-spoken, he was also buoyant and spirited, especially when he spoke of Hamilton Park. I struck an immediate connection with Mr. Smith, who would be an abiding resource to me until his passing in 2020. At our first meeting, I recall that he wore a three piece suit with a pocket handkerchief, and the moment he sat down in my office, I felt that his visit might be long remembered as a special occasion. “My friends call me C.J.,” he said, and I hoped that I could someday be counted among that list. I responded, “Please call me Jeannie.” 

We talked about many things that day, as he was one of the oldest living stewards of the Hamilton Park community, as well as the school district itself. But our conversation quickly landed on the topic of racism, and I believe we both inherently knew it was to be the focus of our meeting. I asked him if he was surprised about a recent event that involved racist memes, created by some of our high school students, that had landed the district’s name on the front page of the Dallas paper and in USA Today

“I wasn’t surprised,” he said, “I was disappointed, but I wasn’t surprised.” 

I realized then that Mr. C.J. Smith had come to my office that afternoon to impart some of his deep knowledge and experience to me. And I felt blessed to be present in his MasterClass.

My Instructor

Mr. C.J. Smith was a World War II veteran of the U. S. Navy and one of the very first African-Americans promoted to what was then known as Seaman First Class. He told me about his life as a young boy growing up in the time of segregation, and also about his career working at Braniff Airlines, and later as a manager at American Airlines where he emphasized “at a time when it was very unusual for black people to be given leadership positions.” But he wanted to talk more about schools and education; we shared this passion, and I was all in.    

If you’re wondering why this conversation with C.J. was considered so significant, here’s why.

  • In 1970, Richardson ISD’s campus demographics were 96 percent white, 3 percent black and less than 1 percent Hispanic.
  • At the time of my meeting with C.J. in 2017, Richardson ISD’s total student population was 38 percent Hispanic, 29 percent white, 22 percent black, 7 percent Asian, and 4 percent multiple race categories.  

C.J. had watched this extraordinary change happen from the earliest origins of the Hamilton Park community to its present day.  And he was all in the entire time – be it from his living room, a classroom, a boardroom, or a court-appointed committee room. He was able to detail events related to RISD’s federal desegregation order—in place from 1970 to 2013, a vital part of Dallas’s history and more specifically to C.J.’s very own neighborhood. A very complex history that I was not aware of. He was one of the only people who had been a participant within the arena the entire time – and all of this history greatly mattered to him. 

“I used to look out to the street and see one very nice bus pass by my house that was only for the white children.  I’d look out my window and wonder to myself why anyone would want less for black children. I could just never make any sense of it.” 

“So, I’ve been wondering for the last few years – since the federal court order was lifted that mandated equal things be in place for students of color, who is making sure that we don’t ever go back to the way it used to be?”

Seaman 1st Class, C.J. Smith

More Than a Historian

Living in Hamilton Park most of his life, C.J.  chose to become an advocate for the education rights of black children within Richardson ISD, and he was appointed as the first chairman and organizer of the Richardson ISD Bi-Racial Committee following a desegregation lawsuit in 1970. 

C.J. told me all about how the committee’s work led to the establishment of an integrated elementary school in Hamilton Park, and later resulted in furthering integration efforts of the district’s middle and high schools. For years, he was a part of the Bi-Racial Committee, later changed to the Multi-Racial Committee, until the federal court’s order was lifted in 2013.  In 2017, the committee’s name changed to the Equity Council. In 2020, an additional committee was formed – the Racial Equity Committee – a continuation of the many decades of work once started by people like C.J. Smith.

“So, I’ve been wondering for the last few years – since the federal court order was lifted that mandated equal things be in place for students of color,” C.J., asked, “who is making sure that we don’t ever go back to the way it used to be?” 

I’m fairly certain that he had not only been wondering – but waiting to ask this question, and even as I said the words, “The work you and others did is certainly woven into the fabric of the district,” I was aware of how dubious my answer sounded. I didn’t even believe what I was saying, as I sat there in conflict with myself.

A grave look of concern appeared on C.J.’s face, and the look did not change as he said, “But who specifically owns it?” He continued. “There’s been a lot of work done, and there’s still a long way to go. Let me just ask you,” as his voice softened even more,  “do you think that students of color are getting the same chances as white students are?”

I squirmed as I realized that I had to answer my new friend honestly:  “I’m not sure that I can answer that.”

C.J., held my eyes for what I remember feeling like an eternity before he said, “Dr. Stone, if there’s anything to take away from our meeting, it’s that I hope you’ll make sure that we don’t go backwards. There are a lot of people counting on you.” I knew he intentionally didn’t refer to me as “Jeannie.” He was a wise man who wanted to remind me of my position. And I realized, at that moment, the profundity of his reminder.

I didn’t want C.J. to leave my office. I wanted him to move in and take a desk right next to mine. I felt like I needed his wisdom and his guidance. But I also knew what C.J. knew – he had done his work. His generation had dismantled a huge part of the broken system. Thankfully, there were no longer two buses picking up students in Hamilton Park. But there was (and is) so much more work to do. 

History Matters

C.J. Smith was a savvy, clear-eyed critic of the status-quo who believed in the importance of the historical past. And by holding fast to the words and voices of experiences, both good and bad, can we truly move forward on sound footing. I have wondered this past year what he would’ve thought about new Texas legislation that will place restrictions on a school’s social studies curriculum and for the first time, put restrictions on the telling of history. This Texas law states a teacher cannot “require or make part of a course” a series of race-related concepts, including the ideas that “one race or sex is inherently superior to another race or sex,” or that someone is “inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive” based on their race or sex.

I have a great deal more to say about this legislation and why, sixty-five years after the Brown v. Board of Education ruling, America’s public schools have slipped backwards into patterns of deep racial and socioeconomic segregation.

But for now, I want to celebrate Mr. Curtis J. Smith and his insistence that I know the history of Hamilton Park in Dallas, Texas. His stories and memories are the immutable bedrock on which I constantly reflect and make decisions. He pushed me to never choke on my beliefs and to always act on my ideals. 

C.J.’s carefully selected words, “Do you think that students of color are getting the same chances as white students are?” and Whose responsibility is it to ensure that history does not repeat itself?” have taken up permanent residence in my mind.

C.J.’s physical voice is sadly gone, but his strong spirit remains. These questions now belong to both me and to you – and in the recesses of our hearts, we know the right answers.

-January 4, 2022

Dr. Stone served as Superintendent of Schools in Richardson ISD, a suburban district in Dallas County, from 2017-2021. She has taught graduate courses at Texas A&M University-Commerce and University of North Texas. As an educator, Dr. Stone has been recognized for her innovative leadership and commitment to children. She was named the 2019 Texas Superintendent of the Year by Texas PTA, Altrusa International’s 2018 Outstanding Woman in Education, and the 2017 Superintendent of the Year by the Texas Educational Support Staff Association. Dallas Business Journal named Dr. Jeannie Stone one of their inaugural Leaders in Diversity award recipients on March 4, 2021.