Pasco man central to Tri-Cities' black history

By Michelle Dupler, Tri-City HeraldFebruary 9, 2013 

— Dave Smith loomed tall in the living room of his east Pasco home as he clasped hands with his wife Climmie and nephew Bobby Sparks and led his family in a soft-voiced prayer.

"We need you, Heavenly Father. We can't do anything without you," he prayed.

At 6-foot-2, his physical stature is impressive even at age 90. But perhaps more noteworthy is the immense presence he's created in the lives of his family and his congregation at New Hope Baptist Church.

Smith is a man of few words, even when it comes to witnessing such historical events as the invasion of Normandy by Allied forces in June 1944. His Army service records show he served in five military campaigns in France and central Europe during World War II, and earned four campaign medals plus the Good Conduct Medal.

When asked about his service, Smith shrugs and says, "It was a long time ago. I don't remember much. The only thing I remember is people getting shot down."

But his military service is a point of pride for his family, who recognize Smith as a living part of history and someone who overcame the horrors of war and the era of segregation to set an example for them of what a black American could achieve.

Smith is the patriarch of one of several black families from Kildare, Texas, who resettled in Pasco in the '50s and '60s hoping to build better lives for their children than the hardscrabble farming life they knew.

He returned from war -- where military units were segregated and Smith's black unit was assigned to retrieve and bury fallen soldiers -- to land his family owned in Kildare and worked from sunrise to sunset.

"They would never sleep until the work was done," said Sparks, who also was born in Kildare and brought to Pasco by Smith in the '60s. "He came back from the military to 100 acres of land they had to work, and work hard."

But segregation meant black farmers were limited in where they could sell their crops. White markets were closed to them. So several of the Kildare families decided to move north to the Tri-Cities, where work at the Hanford site was booming.

Sparks remembers riding to Pasco at age 11 along with eight other people in a "little red station wagon" Smith owned.

"It was a culture shock to come here," Sparks said.

Smith and the other men learned new trades and over time brought others north until nearly an entire community had resettled in Pasco, Sparks said.

Smith trained as a concrete mason and worked on one of the Washington Public Power Supply System's nuclear reactors, now known as Energy Northwest's Columbia Generating Station.

"It was a big change," Smith said of the difference between farming and concrete work.

He sometimes misses Texas and thinks of returning to see the hills he once farmed -- now tree-lined land reserved for hunting.

"He asked today if I was going to take him (there)," said Smith's son Vernon.

Smith also became a leader in his church and served as a deacon until retiring just recently. His family and friends still refer to him as "Deacon" as a measure of their respect.

"Deacon means he's a servant -- a servant of God," Sparks said. "And he ruled his house well."

Sparks credits Smith and the other men from Kildare with opening doors for their children that allowed them to go on to professions that were closed to their fathers.

"They're standing on the shoulders of Deacon Smith and the others," Sparks said.

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