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Race, Identity & Faith

St. Louis Community 'Devastated’ By Sudden Death Of SLU Professor

Jonathan Smith, Ph.D.
St. Louis University
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Jonathan Smith served as vice president for diversity and community engagement at St. Louis University since 2017. He was a member of St. Louis Public Radio's Friends Board.

Jonathan Smith was a “girl dad” and proud of it. He took his three daughters to school every day. He volunteered at their schools, was their debate coach, and made sure their hair was together.

“It wasn’t a thrown-together dad ponytail, like ‘Oh, your dad did your hair today,’” said Lauren Smith, his eldest daughter. “He did our hair for real, for real. He did the edges, the twists, the braids.”

Smith died on Juneteenth at the age of 61 following a stroke 11 days earlier. He had served as vice president for diversity and community engagement at St. Louis University since 2017.

Smith earned his bachelor's degree at Princeton University and went on to get his master's and Ph.D. at Washington University in St. Louis. He got his start at St. Louis University in 2002 as an assistant professor of American Studies. He would go on to teach African American Studies and later become the university’s first chief diversity officer.

In 2014, the killings of Michael Brown Jr. and VonDerrit Meyers led to student protests on campus. He stood in solidarity with the student activists and protesters. Smith served as a bridge of communication, which eventually led to the Clock Tower Accords — a list of 13 commitments the university made to diversity, equity and inclusion.

SLU President Fred Pestello said Smith’s death leaves a gaping hole at the university and the community.

“He dealt with some of the most sensitive, complex, difficult and emotional issues that individuals and society are now facing,” Pestello said, “and he did so in a warm and generous way.”

062121_Jonathan Smith_Provided_01.JPG
Rachel Smith-McCourt
Jonathan Smith with his wife and daughters. Smith, vice president for diversity and community engagement at St. Louis University, died at the age of 61.

Smith was known as “Black Google” to his daughters. He could see something and point out the cultural reference on the spot. He could talk to anyone about anything from physics and poetry to romance languages and TV shows. His daughter said he was a humble genius.

“Whenever he was sharing information or teaching, it was never coming from a place of like, ‘I know more than you, and definitely I’m going to flex on you,’” Lauren Smith said. “It was about, ‘Hey, how can we share information so that we can both come to a clearer understanding about this concept?’”

Pestello echoed those sentiments, calling Smith a people person, generous and big-hearted.

“Jonathan never said no,” Pestello said. “Whether it was asking him to get involved in something on campus or in the community, or a single individual in need or somebody who wanted mentoring or advice, Jonathan was there.”

Smith joined the St. Louis Public Radio Friends of KWMU advisory board in November 2019. He later formed and led the first DEI committee of the board. Tom Livingston, interim general manager at the radio station, said he was shocked and saddened to hear of Smith’s death.

Livingston said Smith’s commitment to DEI work left a lasting impression on him.

“Jonathan's counsel and presence have been invaluable to me, including that the path to equity starts with diversity, moves through inclusion, before finally making equity possible,” he said.

His roots

Smith was also committed to racial justice work and deepening people’s understanding surrounding diversity, equity and inclusion.

Much of that stems from his parents. Both were part of the Montgomery bus boycott. His mother refused to ride the bus. His dad used his car to drive Black people to where they needed to go and was later arrested with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Lauren Smith said her dad’s work was influenced by his parents and his grandparents, who were sharecroppers in Alabama.

“I think about my dad’s poetry and what he writes about,” she said. “It would be all about exploring Blackness and where we came from and where we are and where we’re going, and I think that was deeply driven by his pride and commitment to continuing the legacy that his parents and his parents’ parents set out.”

Aside from his role in academia, Smith was a poet. A collection of his poetry is being showcased now at the St. Louis Black Rep through the end of June. Smith also served as the president of the Black Rep's board of directors.

During his time at SLU he co-directed the Slavery, History, Memory and Reconcilation Project — a joint initiative of the university and the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States to examine the role the university played in enslaving African Americans.

Danielle Harrison was a co-director of the project that helped connect the descendants of the enslaved to their roots.

“He was clearly committed to empowering the descendants — the living descendants of those who had been enslaved,” Harrison said, “and just let those voices lead us in how we responded in all of the work that we did, and reminded us constantly that at the end of the day it’s the descendants that tell us which way we need to go and how we need to move.”

Harrison said he was more than a team member. He was a friend and a mentor who supported them in every way.

“He would meet people where they’re at and he’d bring them to another place,” she said. “He was always creating space for you to be better and also recognize the giftedness in who you are too.”

Lauren Smith said that’s just who her dad was. She said he was also a father figure to many, including her friends from high school who would stop by her house to talk to him instead of her.

She said that she feels “cheated out of time” with her father but that the way that he loved her and her two sisters was something special.

“I have absolute peace knowing that we told each other every single chance that we got how much that we meant to each other,” she said. “Nothing was just a cursory ‘I love you.’ It was ‘I love you because.’”

Rachel Smith-McCourt echoed her sister’s sentiments. But beyond his academic and professional accomplishments, she’ll miss the man behind them. He instilled in her a love of music and the arts, but most important, he instilled a love of family.

“He would say to my sisters and I, he would say your friends will go away, me and Mommy will go away, but you all will always have each other,” Smith-McCourt said. “And that was something that was very, very adamant about our closeness with one another.”

Smith leaves behind his wife, Rochelle, and three daughters: Lauren, Rachel and Mariah.

Follow Marissanne on Twitter: @Marissanne2011

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