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Sam Smith (1922-1995), Seattle City Councilman


Samuel J. Smith enjoyed a rich 24-year career as the first African-American member of the Seattle City Council. His personal warmth toward contemporaries and constituents was renowned among followers of municipal history, as was his dedication to social and economic justice.

Born on July 21, 1922, in Gibsland, Louisiana, Smith was the youngest child of eight siblings. Graduating from high school in 1940, Smith was drafted into the Army two years later, reaching the rank of warrant officer after two years of service in Seattle and the Philippines, among other places. Following the war's end, Smith settled permanently in Seattle's Central District and married Marion King, his high school sweetheart. Together, the two would raise six children.

Earning degrees in Social Science from Seattle University and Economics from the University of Washington, Smith started work at Boeing in 1952. He began a long relationship with the elected office in 1956, running a losing campaign for a seat in the Washington State Legislature. Smith was more successful two years later, securing election to the State House of Representatives for Seattle's 37th District. He served five consecutive terms, and was a vocal proponent of civil rights legislation, particularly the anti-discrimination Open Housing Law that eventually passed in 1967. The same year, Smith left the Legislature to run for a seat on the Seattle City Council.

Smith's legislative agenda remained largely unaltered during the transition to the City Council. The freshman soon spearheaded the successful adoption of a municipal Open Housing Law in 1968. Throughout his career, Smith also pressed for the hiring of African-American police officers and firefighters, and, as the long-time chairman of the Utilities Committee, opposed the increase of power, water, and garbage rates for low-income residents. He served as City Council President from 1974 to 1977 and again from 1986 to 1989, and chaired the Public Safety Committee, Housing and Human Services Committee, and the Labor Committee, in addition to Utilities. Smith also ran repeatedly for Mayor of Seattle, mounting four unsuccessful campaigns for the position.

Both in council chambers and among the public, Smith developed a reputation as an amiable and accessible politico. He consistently evinced a casual, to-the-point style when chairing Council meetings, and kept up a robust correspondence with constituents on a wide range of subjects and concerns.

Though Smith's long career as a councilman was not marred by serious controversy, this does not mean that it passed without incident. In 1988, for example, the King County Metro transit agency purchased $480,000 worth of granite for use in the renovation of a transit tunnel. Notably, the granite was procured from South Africa, in defiance of a directive by the overseeing Metro Council prohibiting the import of materials from the apartheid regime. This event generated strong opinions both for and against, and eventually resulted in the resignation of Metro Council Director Alan Gibbs. Smith, a member of the Metro Council himself, came down firmly against the purchase, despite criticism from a Seattle Times editorial. A response letter to the Times editorial from Smith, fellow councilman Norm Rice, and King County councilman Ron Sims, can be found on the document page.

During the final years of his tenure, Smith was increasingly beset with health problems; in 1986, he lost his left leg to complications from diabetes, and lost his right leg to the same in 1991. Distracted by ailments and the recent death of wife Marion, Smith finally lost his Council seat in 1991 to Sherry Harris, and began a period of retirement. In 1995, Smith passed away at the age of 73. His funeral was attended by over 2,000 friends, admirers, and contemporaries.