SMITH, VERNICE TILFORD
SMITH, VERNICE TILFORD (1922–2011). Vernice Tilford Smith, pioneer of integration in Austin, Texas, was born on December 16, 1922. Orphaned by her mother at an early age, Vernice lived with her grandmother, Texarkana Harris, in Waco for much of her adolescence. She married Leroy “Smitty” Smith in 1948 and had two children, Brenda Zanders and Verna Smith. Vernice Smith played an integral role in the integration of Texas schools in the late 1960s when she became the first African-American teacher at Austin High School, Austin Independent School District’s (AISD) flagship white high school.
As a young adult, Smith attended the historically-black university Huston-Tillotson College in Austin. Smith excelled in school and graduated with honors. Afterwards, she worked as a nurse and taught part-time at Huston-Tillotson College. In 1960 AISD offered Smith a job at a local black school, L. C. Anderson High School. During her seven-year stint at Anderson, she was appointed head of the English department in 1965 and vastly improved the remedial reading program. In 1965 the Southern Education Association awarded Smith a three-year grant that she used to increase her tenth grade students’ cultural awareness and prepare them for college. She used the funds to take her students to a jazz festival, the ballet, a number of traveling Broadway plays, and a tour of President Lyndon Baines Johnson’s ranch, dubbed “The Texas White House.”
In 1967, thirteen-years after Brown v. Board of Education, AISD integrated the district’s teaching staffs and chose Vernice Smith as the first black teacher to teach at Austin High School. Despite initial ostracism, Smith gained a stellar reputation as an educator. She also integrated black history into the existing curriculum at Austin High School and taught her students about events in black history and prominent black figures, including Malcolm X. Smith, and quickly gained the respect of her students and colleagues alike.
Smith continued teaching at Austin High School until she retired in 1985. She also worked for the YWCA, served as president of the St. John Regular Missionary Baptist Association for forty years, and was a member of the Ebenezer Baptist Church for more than sixty years. In 1997 Austin High School recognized her service and inducted her into the school’s Hall of Honor. Additionally, she received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Austin chapter of National Women of Achievement and was inducted into the Connie Yerwood Conner African American Women’s Hall of Fame in 1998. Vernice T. Smith died on August 23, 2011, and her family held a memorial service at the Ebenezer Baptist Church on August 28, 2011. Many Austinites, both black and white, admired Smith, and after her death the Austin American-Statesman published a brief tribute to her and declared her a “pioneer of integration in Central Texas.”
Austin American-Statesman, December 30, 1996; May 3, 1997; March 5, 1998; August 27, 2011. Anna Victoria Wilson and William E. Segall, Oh, Do I Remember!: Experiences of Teachers During the Desegregation of Austin’s Schools, 1964–1971 (Albany, New York: State University of New York Press, 2001).
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