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Pioneering Black Catholic educator Sr Sandra Smithson, SSSF dead at 96

A fiery Black religious sister known for championing effective public education in her hometown of Nashville has passed away.

Smithson during a "Nuns on the Bus" tour stop in Nashville in 2015. (NETWORK Lobby/YouTube)

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Sr Sandra Smithson, SSSF, a pioneering Black religious sister known for her outsize influence on education and social issues in her hometown of Nashville, passed away there on May 13th at the age of 96.

A member of the School Sisters of St Francis for over 67 years, she worked as an educator across the Western Hemisphere, including in the 1960s at a school in Costa Rica, as well as in Chicago, Milwaukee, and Honduras. She originally joined the order in 1954 after being rejected from numerous other congregations due to her race.

Smithson was known in her later years for influencing the passage of charter school legislation for the state of Tennessee, after which she co-founded Middle Tennessee’s first free public charter school, the Smithson Craighead Academy, which still operates and serves a predominantly Black and Hispanic student population.

“You can’t change a child’s life without changing the system that child is in,” said Fr Pat Kibby during his homily at Smithson’s funeral Mass on Monday, May 23rd at the Cathedral of the Incarnation.

“Therefore, the education system has to adjust in order to help that person to learn.”

Born in 1926 during Jim Crow, Smithson was raised in a Catholic home, and her father had helped build Holy Family Catholic Church, the first Black Catholic parish in Nashville.

Smithson attended Catholic schools through college, including one at Nashville's other Black Catholic outpost, St Vincent de Paul Catholic Church, and at Xavier University of Louisiana, the nation’s Catholic HBCU. She would later become a host on Nashville’s first Black radio station, inaugurating an immensely popular show called “A Woman Speaks”.

However, like her life’s inspiration, St Katharine Drexel—then a living legend near the end of her life—Smithson would pass on fame and enter the School Sisters following a receptive letter indicating that they accepted African-American applicants.

Even so, she would face discrimination during her early years of religious life, reportedly being compelled by her superiors to pass for White while working in schools as just the order’s second Black member (after Sr Lourene Holley, SSSF, who faced a similar ultimatum).

Decades later, following the Second Vatican Council, Smithson returned to her hometown and co-founded Project Reflect, a nonprofit dedicated to education and policy reform. It would eventually become the umbrella organization through which the Smithson Craighead Academy was inaugurated in 2003. Her advocacy extended into public school reform even after her retirement as the nonprofit’s executive director in 2014.

For her work toward equality in one of the state’s poorest-performing school districts, Smithson was the recipient of various awards, including the 2011 St Katharine Drexel National Justice Award from Drexel’s own Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, who educated Smithson throughout her youth. She received the Darrell Waltrip Automotive Hometown Hero award in 2016.

Smithson also wrote a number of books, including a children’s book, “Alegro and the Very Imperfect Poodle”, and three other co-authored texts covering bereavement, service, and her reflections on education. The proceeds from “Alegro” and “From Out of the Shadows” benefit a scholarship program for African-American students to attend Nashville’s Father Ryan High School.

Night Bird in Solitary Song” was released posthumously on May 19th, and an earlier text from Smithson, “To Be the Bridge”, was published in 1984 during the Black Catholic Movement and covers race relations in the Catholic Church.

Smithson has also been noted as the subject of a book, a forthcoming effort from Nashville multidisciplinary artist Theresa Laurance covering Smithson’s life and the “intersecting history of the Black Catholic community in Middle Tennessee”.

The Smithson family has asked that donations in Smithson’s memory be made to the St Katharine Drexel Memorial Scholarship Fund at Father Ryan High School. Interested parties can give by calling (615) 269-7926.

Nate Tinner-Williams is co-founder and editor of Black Catholic Messenger, a seminarian with the Josephites, and a ThM student with the Institute for Black Catholic Studies at Xavier University of Louisiana (XULA).

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