Have you ever heard of Dr. Ezekiel Ezra Smith? Unless you are from Duplin or Cumberland County, or if you have attended Shaw University, you are probably not familiar with this name. But that’s okay since I’m more than willing to share with you a small narrative of his life.
Dr. Smith was born on May 23, 1852 on a Duplin County farm where his dad worked as a laborer. His father, Alexander Smith, was the first member of his family to be emancipated. His mother’s (Caroline) family had been free for several generations. At the time of his birth, laws prohibited the teaching of blacks, so Dr. Smith had no formal education during his youth. However, on the farm Dr. Smith did learn from his white playmates.
Flash forward 13 years to 1865, and at this time, Dr. Smith attended a Wilmington night school conducted by the Freedmen’s Bureau while working during the day at naval stores. A few years later, Dr. Smith moved to Wayne County where he attended a school that is similar to a high school. During this time, he also started teaching. After four years at the Wayne County School, he enrolled in Shaw Collegiate Institute (now “Shaw University”). By 1878, Dr. Smith earned his bachelor’s degree.
After graduation, Smith returned to Wayne County as a principal of a black grade school. By 1883, he became the head of the Fayetteville State Normal School, a small university that faced significant financial difficulties. Many sleepless nights combing the financial ledgers paid off, and the school was saved from ruin. Maybe you have heard of this school: it’s now called Fayetteville State University.
Dr. Smith was not only an educator, but he was also a preacher and a politician. For six years Dr. Smith was the pastor of First Baptist Church in Fayetteville, and in 1888, President Grover Cleveland appointed him as the U.S. Ambassador to Liberia.
In 1890, Dr. Smith returned to the United States and earned his doctorate degree from Shaw University. Afterward, Dr. Smith would spend one year as a high school principal before being called back to Fayetteville State University. He would remain at Shaw University the remainder of his life.
Dr. Smith died on December 6, 1933 at the age of 80. However, his name still lives on. You see, in 1927 a black high school was opened in Fayetteville. The school was named “Ezekiel Ezra Smith High School”, better known today as “E.E. Smith”.
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