Joe Smothers

Joe was raised in Baltimore and went to school at City College. He talks about his life and childhood growing up in Baltimore City. He shares his memories of segregation and integration.


SHEA CONWAY: I’m Shea Conway. Filming is Heather [INAUDIBLE], and joining me today is Mr. Joe Smothers. It is the 15th of April, 2010. Thank you, Mr. Smothers, for being with us today and sharing your memories.

JOE SMOTHERS: Certainly my pleasure to be here.

SHEA CONWAY: Mr. Smothers, I understand that you were raised in Baltimore and attended high school at City College. What are some of your childhood memories that come to mind?

JOE SMOTHERS: About City College, you’re saying?

SHEA CONWAY: About City College and just your upbringing in Baltimore, and–

JOE SMOTHERS: Well, as we talked about when you came to my home, I was raised in west Baltimore, and this was toward the end of the ’50s, the early ’60s. There was a real effort to really try to integrate the public schools of Baltimore City. So ever since kindergarten, there had been an effort to try to track students, if you will, to get them to go to some of these citywide public schools. City College at that time was one of four citywide public schools. There was City Poly for boys, Western and Eastern for girls. I was geared toward City College because it not only has a tremendous academic program, but it had some of the best sports programs actually in the state.

SHEA CONWAY: Right, and you had said that you participated in baseball and basketball.

JOE SMOTHERS: I played baseball and basketball, primarily baseball. I thought I was going to be a professional baseball player, but I went there and, uh– tremendous amount of great experiences. I still wear a City College high school ring. It’s recognized all over the world. When I was in Vietnam, there were people come up to me and recognize the ring. I’ve been in Hawaii. Everywhere in the United States you almost run into somebody from City College, but great experience, and that’s where I met my basketball coach, Jerry Phipps. He attended and played basketball and baseball for Western Maryland College then. It was Western Maryland, not McDaniel, and, um, as we shared, uh, again, uh, at my house, uh– he was a member of a program called the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, and he and a lot of other coaches would go to these, uh, summer, um, fellowship camps and sports camps. Uh, as a result of that, we got to know each other not only as a coach and a player, but, I think, as individuals.

Um, Jerry knew a lot of staff at Western Maryland. Um, particularly uh, uh, people who had graduated through Western Maryland’s physical education department, and, um, uh, this was probably ’63, ’64, ’65. Western Maryland, I assume, was making a real, uh, committed effort to try to start integrating the campus. Uh, there were no African American students there at the time, and I was presented with the opportunity when I graduated from City to attend Western Maryland College. Um, um, initially it was supposed to be an academic/athletic scholarship, um, and we had some concerns with the balance of the money that I talked to you about.

SHEA CONWAY: Right. So upon graduating high school, you did receive a senatorial scholarship, uh, to attend Western Maryland. Um, would you tell us a little bit more about that scholarship, um, and what your options would have been had you not received the scholarship? Uh, other university, or–


SHEA CONWAY: Uh, the Vietnam War?

JOE SMOTHERS: Sure. The senatorial scholarship was designed, again, primarily to try to get people to go into education to become teachers, and so state senators– um, um, each state senator from their district was able to award on a competitive basis scholarships to any school in the state of Maryland as long as you decided to the commit to x number of years to teach. As I said, originally that wasn’t a scholarship that was offered to me. It was a– a scholarship from Western Maryland’s– I guess their own funds– and some sort of athletic scholarship. Um, that didn’t work for us. Um, I don’t know what it costs to go to McDaniel now, but in 1965, if I had received that academic/athletic scholarship, the balance would’ve been more than what my mother and father make in a year, and so it just wasn’t a viable option, and so even though they offered me that scholarship, I was going to go to Morgan State University. Uh, uh, most of the people in my community, uh, that’s where they went, uh, to school.

It was– it was just a financial issue. Good school. I enjoyed the campus. It was beautiful, all right, but it was just too expensive. So when this– this senatorial option came in, uh, that made all the difference in the world because it didn’t cost me anything to go to school, but more importantly I have a younger sister. She’s two years younger, and it just met that she now was going to be able to go to college. My parents weren’t going to be able to send both of us to college at the same time, so that was– that was a true opportunity in our family.

SHEA CONWAY: Now, I’m aware that you received this scholarship with another– a classmate of yours, Vic McTeer. He also received the scholarship and attended Western Maryland, too?

JOE SMOTHERS: Right. I went to City College. Victor went to Forest Park. Um, he was, um– I think he was a high school All American at football. Really outstanding student, and he attended that same Fellowship of Christian Athletes camp. That’s where I actually met him, and, um– and so, uh, when– when the semester started that fall of ’65, actually my father, uh, brought Victor and I both to the campus. Uh, Victor’s father had died when he was very, very young. Maybe three or four years old, and he had a beautiful, beautiful mom who just did whatever needed to be done to support him, and she asked my father, would you bring him up to football camp? And so we got to know each other, and, uh, we’d become great, great friends. Uh, as a matter of fact, he is now my brother-in-law. He wound up marrying my wife’s sister.


JOE SMOTHERS: So we’ve become great friends over the years. Tremendous amount of respect for him, but again, it was the two of us from 1965 till about ’67 before any other minority black students were on campus.

SHEA CONWAY: Upon arriving at Western Maryland, what was your initial reaction of Carroll County and Western Maryland?

JOE SMOTHERS: I’d never been in Carroll County. Uh, my parents are from Frederick, so what I saw was very similar to Frederick. It was rural. Uh, I graduated from City College in a class that had 1,400 students in it. Western Maryland had 900 students in the whole campus, so it was very small. You knew you were going to get to meet everyone. Very casual. And again, very different than what I was used to growing up in Baltimore City. The only time you actually really saw a lot of trees and things like that if you went to a park, uh, or a playground. So from that perspective, it was beautiful.

SHEA CONWAY: Um, I’m aware that you were a member of Western Maryland’s men’s basketball team for all four years. Um, what were some of the challenges of being a student athlete, and are there any memories you’d like to share about basketball and that experience?

JOE SMOTHERS: Well, um, again, as we discussed when you were at my house, the biggest problem with basketball is that it was so more encompassing, um, than– than what I was used to in high school. Basketball– they started almost the first day you were on campus in September. Uh, I think the season started early November, and it went all the way through March, uh, but the greatest burden was that you had to learn how to study on the bus. Uh, I think you’re from Lycoming College, went to Lycoming– so it seemed like two or three times a week we were getting on a bus and traveling two or three hours to go play a basketball game, play it, get back on the bus, and you’d get back on campus 12, 1 o’clock in the morning. So you literally studied everything on the bus– science, biology, sociology. And, uh, hopefully sometimes there were seniors or upperclassmen who could help with some of your challenges, uh, academically, but it was– academically it was tough, because it just– it consumed a lot of time. Yeah.

SHEA CONWAY: Um, I learned you also participated in ROTC at Western Maryland. Uh, was ROTC a significant part of your education?

JOE SMOTHERS: Very much so. When I grew up, career patterns were– were not as, um, as great as they are now. There was no such thing as computer information specialist and technologist, but one career path– particularly in the minority community, the black community– was to go into military. Uh, you had uncles, you had brothers, and sisters, and families who had gone into the military and actually made a career, and you saw the impact that it had on their life. You saw the quality of life that they had from a financial perspective. And so when I got here, Western Maryland was a land grant institution, so it meant that every male had to attend, uh, ROTC classes their freshman and sophomore years. It was mandatory.

So, uh, you got college credit for it, and, uh, very quickly I begin to really associate both professionally and, uh, from, uh, a respect– a perspective from the ROTC instructors. They were, in most cases athletes. Uh, one of them played lacrosse. Another one was a basketball player, and so, again, there was a real connection between the things I liked to do athletically and what they were doing in the military. So I guess after my sophomore year I made a decision that I was going to get a commission in the United States Army. Only challenge was that you had a war going on, and so, uh, again, uh, it– it still sort of fills me up. Students that I started with in ’65– and a couple instances, some of those guys that were seniors, they were coming back before I graduated. They had been killed or very– or greatly maimed or something like that in the war. Uh, you know, it was– it became a real life experience. It really– say well, this is– this is for real. This is not fun and games.

SHEA CONWAY: Um, what did you major in while you attended Western Maryland?

JOE SMOTHERS: Physical education major. Uh, I tell you one of the things that probably stands out most with me of my four years at Western Maryland are the people that I met. Three of which probably would be, again, Victor McTeer uh, because like I said, we went through a lot. Uh, we had to depend on each other. We had to support each other. Um, another person was, uh, Dean Ira Zepp. I I mean, uh, again the first day on campus, uh, Dr. Zepp just came over and hugged you, and just told you if you needed something he would be there for you. And he was Vic– one of Victor’s football coaches, but just quality, quality individual, and I was just really saddened that he– that I found out that he died this past year.

Um, and then the third person that professionally had a tremendous impact is Dr. Richard Clower. I think he’s retired now from the physical education department, but, um, as you know, I retired from, uh, Essex Community College as a full professor. Most of my beliefs, most of my philosophical leanings comes from the types of things I learned as a being a– an undergraduate student in the physical education department that he was in charge of. So a great deal of respect for him as a– as a– an academician.

SHEA CONWAY: Um, what challenges, if any, were derived from being one of the first two Americans to graduate from Western in 1969?

JOE SMOTHERS: Uh, I guess the biggest challenge was, uh– was the culture shock, and that again, when I grew up, I grew up in almost an entirely, uh, black community. Uh, when I went to City College, it was probably 60% white, 40% black, so there was diversity there. And you saw people who shared the same backgrounds, the same customs. When I got to Western Maryland, it was just Victor and I, and so you had people who, uh, really had come from some backgrounds that were totally foreign than anything I was used to.

I remember one real challenge was when Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated, and there were some people on campus that I’d actually lived with, um, um, ate with– and again, real small campus so you saw them all the time. Their personal reaction to his killing just absolutely surprised me. I mean, I was just amazed of the some of things they said, some of the things they did, of people that I thought I knew because I had lived with them. And so from that perspective, um, it just told me that you really need to do some homework sometimes. You just– you just shouldn’t always assume that because you see someone in the same environment that they possibly share the same beliefs and attitudes, which they don’t have to, but you just shouldn’t automatically assume that. And so that– that really shaped, uh, a lot of my own personal views as to how you interact with people. You need to find out what’s in their heart as opposed to saying they wear the same jacket or they go to the same college that you do.

SHEA CONWAY: Um, just stemming off of that, what do you think you learned from yourself from attending Western Maryland?

JOE SMOTHERS: Well again, I understand that– that sometimes prejudices, sometimes people’s beliefs are things that they’ve experienced, and hopefully I was able to grow from learning from where they came from and possibly understanding why they would have some of the beliefs that they had. In some instances, I know that people, because of the interaction that they had with Victor and I, with Wayne Curry, one of the other people I think you’ve interviewed– I think they were able to see black people not as a monolith, that we’re not all the same. We’re not all jocks. We– we don’t all sing, and dance, and do things like that. And conversely I don’t want to make that assumption about people from other races or other religions, and so it helped quite a bit.

Uh, again, it helped to me when I went into the workplace at Essex Community College. When I started there in ’72, there was only two other, uh, African American faculty there. That part of Baltimore County– maybe less than a half a percent of that part of the county was African American. So again, trying to teach, trying to coach and work in a– in a community that had very little interaction with black folks was a challenge, but again, I was used to it because I spent four years in that environment at Western Maryland.

SHEA CONWAY: Um, just going back to Vic McTeer, I know that you guys, you know, were very close. Do you feel that you, yourself, and Vic McTeer paved and helped pave the way for more integration and diversity at Western Maryland in the following years after that– after you left the college?

JOE SMOTHERS: I– I would hope so. Victor and I every summer would go out and recruit students. I mean, we had a feel after that first year academically and then also from athletic teams what they were looking for, but more so academically. And so we went out, and we recruited. Um, we went to Poly. We went to Douglas. We went to, uh, schools where, uh, we thought there were African American students who would, um– would benefit from going to a small college environment, and particularly students who had an interest, uh, in the pre-med, or the dental programs, or law. Again, in the ’60s those were extremely strong programs, and so, uh, yeah, we– we did that. Uh, that’s, um, I think how a lot of African American students got here, because we went out and talked about the school. Um, I don’t know what impact we have. You’d have to ask somebody else that.

SHEA CONWAY: Do you feel like the– the faculty and the administration at that time helped you recruit and helped you diversify?

JOE SMOTHERS: I don’t know if they recruited, but I know that there were, um, many faculty here, who, again, showed the great spirit that they had for wanting to just help an individual. A Dr. Robert Jones, uh, just– uh, just nurtured me in a way that was just unbelievable. Uh, I walked into his freshman chemistry class. His question– how many people have had two years of high school chemistry or three years of high school chemistry? I think one other student and myself were the only ones that didn’t raise our hands. We didn’t have any high school chemistry, and so again, just a good person, and we developed a real strong relationship through the years at Western Maryland because he got to see me grow as a man. I think he was able to understand some things about diversity that maybe he hadn’t– wouldn’t have experienced if we hadn’t been there, but– but first and foremost, he was a good man, and I think he understood and found out that I was a good person also, you know? So, um, there were probably other– other faculty members. It’s been almost 40 years so in some cases I’m not remembering names.

SHEA CONWAY: Um, like you said before, you– you accepted a position in the physical education department at Essex Community College–


SHEA CONWAY: –a few years after your graduation. Um, what was your time like at Essex? I know you– you touched on it a little bit before briefly, but could you just elaborate and tell me a little bit about it?

JOE SMOTHERS: In– in– in some instances it was very similar the Western Maryland. Um, you didn’t have faculty. You didn’t have a lot of minority students, and again, you were in a part of Baltimore County where the– the– the people in their neighborhoods weren’t coming into contact with a– with a lot of diversity. And so again, you went out and you tried to recruit faculty. You tried to recruit support staff to diversify, because that’s what you saw was happening all over the state and all over the country, as a matter of fact. There were challenges, yeah, but again, there were some people there, uh, who, like Dr. Jones, Dr. Clower, looked at the quality of a person’s heart as opposed to just the color of their skin.

Uh, the gentleman that I worked under, Dr. Andy McDonald, just a real pioneer in that area physical education and community involvement. Uh, did everything he could to support the idea of diversity, and, uh, recruiting not only people of color, but making sure that women had an opportunity to– to play sports and do things in the field, which was probably, uh, back in the ’60s was probably– probably– was probably more male dominated. So, um– so a tremendous amount of growth there Essex also.

SHEA CONWAY: Um, I’m aware also that you– you spent some time on the board of trustees at Western Maryland College with Wayne Curry you had mentioned before.


SHEA CONWAY: Could tell us a little bit about the board of trustees and– and your role, um, and serving as a number on that– on that board.

JOE SMOTHERS: Again, it was part of, I think, Western Maryland’s attempt to try to grow. Um, I think, uh, Kurt Schmoke, who was also a City College graduate, and he went to Princeton– Kurt was the mayor of Baltimore City. I think Kurt was on the, um– the board of trustees at that time. Kurt and Vic McTeer are best friends, and so Kurt, uh, recruited Victor McTeer to be on the board, but Victor lives in Mississippi, and so again, uh, my name was raised as someone who would might consider going on the board. And we had a conversation with the president and a couple of the deans, and, uh, I felt comfortable doing that.

Um, again as we talked about, one of the things that, um, started when I was on the board– Western Maryland decided that, hm, we need to market ourselves a little bit differently, and they started looking to changing its name. I– those are the efforts that eventually led to it becoming– becoming called McDaniel if I’m not mistaken.

SHEA CONWAY: Once again, I’d really like to thank you for taking your time, and we really appreciate you being part of our world history interview.

JOE SMOTHERS: I appreciate it. Uh, it’s amazing that I look back and it’s 40 years.


You know? And I drove up here today and didn’t recognize where I was, uh, because I came up through the back way. Carroll County is really growing. You know, you have a community college. Uh, I’m a tremendous community college advocate. I just think that it’s– it’s a– it’s a tremendous opportunity, provides a quality means of instruction for a lot of folks. Uh, one of my children went through community college and, uh, got a great education there. So again, I appreciate this opportunity, but Carroll County is completely different than what I recognized when I was here in the ’60s, sure.

SHEA CONWAY: Thank you so much for your time.

JOE SMOTHERS: Thank you so much. Thank you.