When more than a thousand Black Lives Matter protesters gathered on the Saint Louis University campus in October 2014, many expected to receive tear gas and riot shields, like this had performed a few weeks earlier in Ferguson, Missouri.
Jonathan Smith, Ph.D came armed with cups of coffee and, since it was raining, umbrellas.
Smith, the former vice president for diversity and community engagement and professor of African American studies, died on June 19, 2021 at the age of 61. He was a titan of change both on and off campus, according to those who knew him, including SLU President Fred Pestello, Ph.D.
“He was warm, gentle and kind,” Pestello said. “He was smart and efficient. He loved the job. He made us move forward.
Smith kept a delicate balance in a difficult climate, maintaining mutual respect between activists and administrators. But he also clung to other passions in his life.
As the son of a pastor, Smith’s faith was very important to him. He wrote poetry. He was playing the piano. As an adult, Smith ran marathons. He loved literature, frequently citing Dr Martin Luther King Jr., James Baldwin and WEB Du Bois. Smith’s father was arrested along with Dr King during protests in Selma, Alabama, a fact Smith was very proud of, Pestello said.
“His orientation to music and art heightened his sense of empathy, and I think that’s why he connected so well with people and could listen to people”, Gerald Early, Ph.D, professor Merle Kling of Modern Letters in Africa and African American Studies at Washington University in St. Louis, said. Early taught Smith while studying for his MFA and then served as his doctoral supervisor.
Smith’s interests manifested themselves in the world around him. He was chairman of the board of directors of the St. Louis Black Repertory Company and musical director of his church. He helped establish a photo gallery depicting the Ferguson protests, which are currently on display at the Busch Student Center. And Smith, a former literature student who started poetry in college, continued to write into adulthood, drawing inspiration from religion, family, and music.
“He was dedicated,” Pestello said. “His faith was in his blood. He was a poet at heart, and he was a true humanist. All of these things informed his worldview.
Most of all, friends remembered Smith for his ability to bring people together, even in times of struggle. Now, after his death, the many communities he touched are coming together again.
“I considered him a close personal friend, as many did,” Pestello said. “His death is a huge loss. “
The black representative will interpret “Am I moving you?” A collection of poetry, music and dance written by Smith, at the Global Citizenship Center on October 13, 2021. The event takes place in the midst of a week-long commemoration of OccupySLU, the protest that Smith helped officiate in 2014.
“He had that natural, paternalistic aura about him that was so quaint and humble, yet effervescent,” said Aric Hamilton, vice president of diversity and inclusion for the Student Government Association. “He just had this way of making everyone feel valued, loved and respected, while still staying true to his values and to the point that he was trying to communicate.”
A scholarship was created in his name, supporting high school graduates in the region who attend SLU with a “commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion”. Additionally, Pestello announced at Smith’s memorial service this summer that the Joseph G. Lipic Clock Tower Square Amphitheater, where protesters gathered in 2014, will be named after Smith at the time. ‘an official ceremony this fall.
“The amphitheater was a place Jonathan was often found,” said Pestello. “We were often there together: talking, praying, listening.
While his most visible actions were in protest, Smith worked hard behind the scenes to change the world as he saw fit in the name of fairness. He led a campaign to make the SLU test optional, a change implemented this semester. Smith worked to diversify the Cortex, a Midtown innovation district that recently became a hub for tech start-ups and led the
The university will join Anchor Action Network, a coalition of colleges and businesses promoting community investment in inner city neighborhoods.
Smith was one of the founders and co-directors of the Jesuit Slavery, History, Memory and Reconciliation Project, created to honor African Americans who had been enslaved by the Society of Jesus and who held often emotionally charged discussions with their descendants.
Smith died on the National Holiday of Juneteenth, celebrating the emancipation of enslaved African Americans after the Civil War. He had worked for years to get the University to recognize the holiday, which they first did in 2021, weeks before an act of Congress doing the same at the federal level.
“He was one of the best men to ever work at this university,” Pestello said. “I considered him a close personal friend, as many did. His death is a huge loss.
In a speech on June 17, 2020 at the University Clock Tower, Smith reflected on the progress he had witnessed and the state of affairs to come.
“While I am quite proud of the work we have done and the steps we have taken, I know and fully understand that this is not enough,” he said.