Family, friends honor leader in racial equality

Published 12:00 am Saturday, July 5, 2014

Fifty years after the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and almost 40 years after Allie Mae Smith’s death, friends and family members gathered in Florala Thursday to honor her early leadership for racial equality.

Siblings Alan and Emily Silverman made a contribution to the Carver Center in Smith’s memory, and the dining room is subsequently being named in her honor.

The Silvermans’ parents opened a metal works plant in Lockhart in the 1950s.

Mrs. Smith worked in the Silvermans’ home, but Alan Silverman said his mother considered Allie Mae her best friend.

“Mae worked for my family for many years,” Silverman said. “She was my mother’s partner in running our household. They worked together, side-by-side, but my mother considered her her best friend – not lightly or superficially. They were confidants, lovingly entwined in each other’s lives.

“Mae was a powerful force, personally, emotionally, spiritually, and in every way possible,” Silverman recalled. “She had an enormous capacity for love. She had her own sons, and family, but her heart was big enough to love others as well.

“She was our second mother,” he said. “Her hugs and kisses and approval were often sought and gratefully received. Practically from birth, Mae helped to dress, bathe and feed us. More than that, she taught us life lessons, love and compassion, strength and honor, grace and goodness.

“Along with our parents, grandparents, aunt and uncle, she taught us courage, dignity, the importance of standing up to injustice, and working in our own ways to make the world a better place.”

Silverman said Smith’s sons were his playmates in a time when that didn’t happen much.

“Geography and time have separated us,” he said. “But we share a history, and deep and abiding love for their mother. Today, Mae would be so proud of them and their families.”

Silverman said when his father opened a metal works factory in Lockhart in the 1950s, he hired blacks and whites to work side by side with equal wages.

“There were no separate restrooms, and no separate water fountains,” Silverman said. “That was revolutionary in those days, and not a popular idea among some folks. The challenges were discussed at our kitchen table, and Mom, Dad and Mae engaged equally.

“Back in those days, it was not an easy task for a black person to go to polls to cast a ballot,” Silverman said. “It was scary because of threats being made.

“As a little boy, I remember a conversation between my mother and Mae. Mae was determined to vote, and Mother was determined to help her. I remember holding Mae’s hand as my mother and I accompanied her to voting booth, and I remember the grace and satisfaction on her face as she accomplished this goal.”

When the Silvermans’ grandfather died in 1961, the family purchased a plot in Florala’s Greenwood Cemetery.

“The plot bordered what used to be known as colored cemetery,” Silverman recalled. “An iron fence separated the two. I distinctly remember the conversation, my mother, father and Mae had as the three of them discussed the purchase of this particular plot on the border, and the opportunity to tear down the fence that separated the two spaces.

“That is just what they did. All three of them together, while I watched,” he recalled. “For me, it was as stirring an act as I ever witnessed. It was done with a great sense of importance and consequence. It was the Deep South equivalent of tearing down of the Berlin Wall.”

Silverman said he has seen much racial progress in his lifetime.

“I look at Carver Community Center, Florala, and other places around the country and I see wonderful progress. Children in my generation and older, could not have imagined an African American could be president. But there is much work to be done.

“You and your generations that follow will help to take us there,” he said. “There were many other men and women of courage, including many in room today.

“This place, and her memory, should remind us that individuals can and do make a difference,” Silverman said. “ Dignity, compassion, goodness and grace can help to change the world.”

Jerry Smith of Andalusia spoke for the Smith family.

Smith said he remembers many of the stories that Silverman shared.

“What I remember most was how Alan, his mom and dad and Emily, just how loving they were. It was kind of odd to me to know someone not of the African American persuasion who treated me with dignity and respect.

“It affected me all my life, positively,” Smith said. “Knowing them gave me confidence throughout my life.”

Smith said when the Silvermans moved their factory to Philadelphia, his mother took the family there for a year, and the Silvermans did all they could to make the transition a good one.

When ‘The Help’ appeared in theaters, Smith said he was reminded of his childhood.

“I knew that my mom did that kind of work, but it was different,” he said. “We knew she really loved Allen and Emily. She would talk about them often. And that love that she had, it couldn’t help but overflow from us to them.

“We’re just so privileged to know them, and we thank them again,” he said.