Smith, Sam (1922-1995)

  • By Mary T. Henry
  • Posted 10/20/1998
  • Essay 63

Sam Smith was the first black person to be elected to the Seattle City Council and the second black State Legislator from King County. He has been credited with helping to bridge the political and cultural gap between the white and black communities.

Sam Smith served in the Legislature for five terms beginning with his election from the 37th district in 1958. One of his first acts in Olympia was to introduce a bill to ban discrimination based on race or religion in the rental or sale of homes. Although the bill failed, he continued to introduce it.

In 1967, he won election to the Seattle City Council and served on it until 1991, when Sherry Harris, another black politician, defeated him. During those years, he also ran unsuccessfully four times for the office of mayor.

As chairman of the Council's Utilities Committee, he prevented or reduced increases in power, water, and garbage rates, knowing that low-income residents couldn't afford them. He pressed for the hiring of black firefighters and police officers. In 1968, he sponsored an open housing measure and the Council passed it unanimously.

A man of urbane charm and a friendly nature, he answered his office phone with the greeting, "Hello, this is Sam," and solved the problems of his constituents in a timely manner. No problem was too small for him to tackle. He considered himself a good neighbor to everyone in Seattle and often drove through the city, stopping to visit constituents in person.

Born on July 23, 1922, in Gibsland, in northwestern Louisiana, Sam Smith was the youngest of eight children. His father was a Baptist minister who also maintained a farm. It is said that the young Sam enjoyed education so much that he repeated the seventh grade three times because that was the highest grade for black children to attain.

He left home at 15 to attend high school, later serving in World War II and rising to the rank of warrant officer. In 1942, the Army brought him to Seattle and he decided to stay.

He continued his education, earning a degree in social science from Seattle University in 1951, and a degree in economics from the University of Washington in 1952. He worked at The Boeing Company until politics became his career in 1958. Black politicians have said he inspired and encouraged them to seek various political offices.

Sam Smith died on November 16, 1995, after suffering during the last years of his life with diabetes resulting in the amputation of both legs. In September 1998, on the basis of nominations by citizens, the Black Heritage Society, and the Seattle Urban League, Seattle's Parks and Recreation Department named a park on the lid over the Interstate-90 tunnel in Smith's honor.


"Sam Smith, 'Everyone's Neighbor,' Dies -- Former Seattle Councilman Was 73," The Seattle Times, November 17, 1995, p. A-1; "Passing of a Legend: Sam Smith Dies at 73," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, November 17, 1995, p. A-1.

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