Daniel Smith, 90, Dies; Thought to Be the Last Child of an Enslaved Person

In Winsted he met the woman who would become his third wife, Clara Wheeler, who was nearly 40 years his junior. Abram was struck and killed by a car when Daniel was 6, after which his mother took a series of jobs as a domestic worker.

Daniel worked, too, putting in long hours before and after school as a veterinarian’s assistant. During the Korean War he enlisted in the Army, hoping to be assigned to a K-9 unit. But the armed forces were still in the process of desegregation, and he was told that such work was off limits to Black people.

He returned home to attend Springfield College, just over the Massachusetts border from Winsted. In 1957 he made headlines as a local hero when, during a flood that killed 87 people, he pulled a stranded truck driver from a swollen river, a rescue recounted by the journalist John Hersey in a syndicated news report.

Though he was one of only a handful of Black students at Springfield and was rarely included in social activities, he was well liked, and his classmates voted him student council president. He graduated with a degree in general studies in 1960, then spent three years as a social worker before leaving for Alabama.

He moved to Washington to take a job with the Office of Economic Opportunity, the flagship of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society. There he developed neighborhood health centers in rural and underserved parts of the country and, in 1972, started a federal program that provided doctors for those regions.

But he also faced discrimination from a white manager, including the threat of a demotion. He pushed back and, with pro bono legal assistance from a high-powered Washington law firm, not only won his case but received a pay increase.

He later created emergency health centers in Lebanon, Morocco and South Africa. He was on hand in 1986 to observe the installation of Desmond Tutu as archbishop of Cape Town.

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