ST. LOUIS — Jonathan Smith, an assistant professor of African American Studies at St. Louis University who pushed for Juneteenth to be celebrated as a holiday at the university, died Saturday. He was 61.
Smith, also the university’s vice president of diversity and community engagement, died suddenly after suffering a stroke 11 days earlier, his family said. Smith was a dedicated community builder, not just on the SLU campus but across the St. Louis area, friends and family said.
“He always had a passion for those with more marginalized identities, who were excluded,” SLU President Fred Pestello said in an interview Sunday. “He was deeply involved in helping increase efforts for diversity and inclusion and equity … He was a mentor to many people.”
When the deaths of Michael Brown and VonDerrit Myers Jr. spurred a student occupation of the campus in 2014, Smith became an intermediary between students and campus administration. He was instrumental in the creation and implementation of the “Clock Tower Accords,” a set of 13 commitments by the university that resulted from the occupation. The commitments include increasing the budget for the African American Studies program, financial aid for the retention of Black students at SLU and university sponsorship of a national conference on racial equality.
In 2015, Smith was hired from within to the cabinet position. Smith saw it as his business to make sure more minority faculty were hired and retained at SLU, Pestello said, and to mentor many students as well.
Smith was “very pleased and proud” of the way Juneteenth was set to be celebrated on campus, Pestello said. The outpouring of grief and blessings for Smith has been “extraordinary,” the university president said. Former students, fellow faculty members and others expressed the impact Smith had on them across social media on Sunday.
“It’s an enormous gap we will have,” Pestello said, becoming choked up. “He was such a sweetheart of a man.”
Smith’s passion for social justice was in his blood — Smith’s own father was arrested alongside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the Montgomery bus boycotts in 1956. His mother was also involved in the boycotts.
Smith leaves behind a wife, Rochelle, and three daughters, Lauren Smith (Brook Helburn), Rachel Smith-McCourt (Shannon Smith-McCourt), and Mariah Smith. The family moved from Ithaca, New York, to St. Louis in 1990.
“He was an incredible dad,” Lauren Smith, 35, said. “In the midst of being a Ph.D. professor, he was our substitute drama teacher, he was our speech and debate coach.”
Smith always talked with his daughters about race and equality and justice, his daughter said, and encouraged them to be voracious readers like he was. He was extremely active at Blessed Hope Missionary Baptist as minister of music, helping with choir rehearsals.
“He was about his people and lifting his community as he climbed,” Lauren Smith said. “He was mentoring young Black students, Black women — anyone who was overlooked or underestimated ... You could currently be a victim of the carceral state, he would have an incredible conversation with you. You could be homeless, or a parent, or a 4-year-old asking why his hair was in locks, he would have a beautiful dialogue with you. There was no person he couldn’t communicate with.”
On Friday, the day before his death, Smith shared a message with his family that he wanted to share with the SLU community the following day, for Juneteenth.
“The proximity of Juneteenth and Father’s Day is of special importance to me,” Smith’s message reads in part. “Both of these days remind me of my father who was active in the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the A&P store protest in Chicago in the 1960s. His social activism and civil engagement have always been a beacon and inspiration to me. His commitment to social justice and civil rights are foundational to my worldview and commitment to ensuring that our community is fully equitable for every member.”
Smith’s poetry is currently being performed virtually to music and choreography by the St. Louis Black Rep until the end of June.