Reverend Dr. William Amos “Booker” Smith
In honor of Black History Month, we remember SCC’s first black graduate, Rev. Dr. William Amos “Booker” Smith Sr. (BJC ’31).
When Rev. Dr. Smith was honored in 2011, Rev. William (Bill) Smith II, shared stories of his father’s accomplishments and challenges.
When the Smith family moved to Iowa from Kentucky, they lived in a boxcar near the train yards in West Burlington. However, their meager accommodations didn’t stop young Booker. He was an eager learner and excelled scholastically and would become the first black student to graduate from Burlington High School. The year was 1929.
Rev. Bill Smith said that in those days, opportunities for blacks were few and far between. “He was black, he was poor, he had asthma, and a stuttering impediment. That’s enough right there to say that you’ve got a formula for failure.”
Bill said in spite of his father’s situation, it wasn’t enough to stop him from getting an education. “About the size of a pinhole – he had that much hope.”
He was offered a scholarship to attend then-Burlington Junior College (BJC). That one scholarship would open up an entire new world to him. Two years later, in 1931, he became the first black to graduate from BJC where he graduated at the top of his class.
Bill added that Rev. Smith wasn’t driven by success or ego. “He wasn’t trying to be the first at anything or to be the best of anyone. He was simply trying to escape the bonds of poverty.”
In part due to his impressive academic achievements at BJC, he was offered a scholarship to attend Drake University in Des Moines where he earned a bachelor’s degree in history. He was active outside of the classroom as well. He played football, track and shot put, and he served on the college debate team. He maintained an A- average.
After graduating from Drake, he returned to Burlington and became the town’s first black ordained minister in 1934. He served as pastor of Union Baptist Church.
“He knew that’s where the source of his blessings were, so he answered the call to preach,” said Bill.
Over the course of his life, he would serve as pastor at six churches in five states.
He entered the Army during WWII, where he spent 15 years as an Army chaplain before retiring as a Major. In 1944, he was directed by General Eisenhower to study and make recommendations on negro troop morale.
“No matter where he was – all over Europe during the war, wherever he lived across the country, he never forgot Burlington. He kept this place in his mind and in his heart.”
After retiring from the Army, he earned Divinity and Theology degrees from Crozer Seminary in Pennsylvania, and completed coursework for a Ph. D. at Temple University in Philadelphia.
He held a number of teaching and administrative positions at colleges and universities in South Dakota, Arkansas, Georgia and Florida.
Later he spent time as a minister at a church in Fort Valley, GA where he worked with college classmate Dr. Martin Luther King.
He moved to St. Petersburg, FL to become the pastor of First Baptist Institutional Church and serve as Professor of Social Studies at St. Petersburg Junior College. While there, he taught a new generation of community college students, giving them the same opportunities he had received so long ago.
Rev. Smith passed away on October 2, 1973.
Bill was quick to point out how good works often comes full circle, “You honor yourselves while you’re honoring him, because without that very first scholarship, who knows where he would have ended up.”
A plaque honoring Rev. Smith hangs near Loren Walker Arena on the West Burlington campus.