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Smythe-Haithe, Mabel

Smythe-Haithe, Mabel


Scholar, ambassador

Although not well-known, Mabel Smythe-Haithe (sometimes written as Smythe Haithe or Smythe-Haith) lived an extraordinary life devoted to promoting global understanding. As a professor and economist, an author, ambassador, consultant, and humanitarian, Smythe-Haithe traveled the world and lived in numerous countries. Her specialty was African affairs.

Raised in a Socially Active Family

Born on April 3, 1918, in Montgomery, Alabama, Mabel Hancock Murphy was the daughter of Josephine (Dibble), a dressmaker, and Henry Saunders Murphy. Her parents were both college graduates, and Mabel and her two older sisters and younger brother were raised with the expectation that they too would attend college. Henry Murphy was on the faculty of Alabama State Normal College and owned a printing company. He was also a prolific and creative newspaper writer. Mabel attended a private elementary school on the campus of Alabama State Normal College. By the age of seven she was enjoying writing, winning spelling awards, and reading everything available. She attended high school at the Atlanta University Laboratory School.

As a teenager Mabel accompanied her parents as they registered voters for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and took them to the polls. Although Mabel was modest and somewhat shy, she was action-oriented and grew up believing that she could accomplish anything.

From 1933 to 1936 Mabel Murphy attended Spelman College, a historically black women's school in Atlanta, Georgia. She majored in economics and minored in mathematics. Her father's interest in newspaper writing had rubbed off on her, however, and she became associate editor for the Campus Mirror during her freshman year and news editor her sophomore year. She performed with the college glee club and as a University Player and was a member of the Atlanta University Orchestra and Chorus. However Henry Murphy, who had attended college in Boston, Massachusetts, wanted his daughter to study in New England. Mabel won a scholarship to Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Massachusetts, where she completed her degree.

Earned Her Ph.D.

From 1937 until 1939 Murphy taught at Fort Valley Normal and Industrial Institute in Fort Valley, Georgia. She met Hugh H. Smythe, a sociology student, at the University of Wisconsin and they were married on July 26, 1939. Smythe earned a master's degree from Northwestern University in 1940 and a doctoral degree in labor economics and law in 1942 from the University of Wisconsin.

After Hugh Smythe completed his studies he joined the army, while Mabel Smythe taught at the historically black Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Missouri. She maintained her commitment to black colleges throughout her life, telling Notable Black American Women (NBAW) in November of 1990: "Black col- leges fulfill a need that white colleges fail to provide for black students. The black colleges receive the black students wholeheartedly and work with them until they reach acceptable levels…Then and now, black colleges provide an artistic and cultural life in the black community. At such colleges, students do not face prejudice against their blackness and their cultural background." Over the following years Smythe taught economics at Tennessee Agricultural and Industrial State College in Nashville and at Brooklyn College in New York.

Worked Abroad

The Smythes wanted to join the Foreign Service. At the time the NAACP was pressuring the U.S. State Department to hire blacks and encouraged the Smythes to apply. From 1951 to 1953 Mabel Smythe taught English and economics at Shiga University in Japan, while her husband taught at the University of Janaikechi. She learned Japanese and co-authored a Japanese-English phrase book. Smythe told NBAW: "I began to see value in other cultures, other values, and other philosophies of life. My new learning enabled me to enjoy and relate more wholly to different races. Experience made me realize that there were many minorities in the United States besides black Americans. At the same time I felt the need for multilinguistic skills."

In Japan the Smythes were visited by James Robinson, founder of Operation Crossroads Africa. Mabel Smythe began to assist Robinson with a student-exchange program between Africa and the United States. She worked with college admission officers to organize the African Scholarship Program for Nigerian students to attend Harvard and other universities. The Smythes traveled to Europe and Africa, accompanying African students to America. Onboard ship they organized language classes and introduced students to American culture and education.

In 1953 Mabel Smythe joined the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund as deputy director of non-legal issues for school-desegregation cases. Working with future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, she gathered information for the landmark Supreme Court case, Brown v. Topeka Board of Education, which eventually outlawed segregation in public schools. She told NBAW: "I felt that I was taking part in history during the development of the information for this famous case. Thurgood Marshall and the staff realized that this case would have a greater effect on black people than any case since the Plessey v. Ferguson decision in 1898." Smythe also reported for the New York Amsterdam News and other papers.

At a Glance …

Born Mabel Hancock Murphy on April 3, 1918, in Montgomery, AL; died on February 7, 2006, in Tuscaloosa, AL; married Hugh H. Smythe, 1939 (died 1977); children: Karen Pamela; married Robert Haithe Jr., 1985 (died 1988). Education: Spelman College, 1933-36, honorary LLD, 1980; Mount Holyoke College, BA, 1937, honorary LHD, 1977; Northwestern University, MA, 1940; University of Wisconsin, PhD, 1942, honorary LLD, 1991.


Fort Valley (GA) Normal and Industrial Institute, teacher, 1937-39; Lincoln University, Jefferson City, MO, assistant professor, associate professor, acting department head, 1942-45; Tennessee Agricultural and Industrial State College, Nashville, TN, professor, 1945-46; Shiga University, Shiga, Japan, visiting professor, 1951-53; NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, deputy director of research, 1953; New Lincoln School, New York, NY, senior teacher, 1954-59, coordinator/principal, 1959-69; UNESCO, US delegate, 1964; US Agency on International Development, consultant, 1964-66; Phelps-Stokes Fund, New York, NY, director of research and publications, 1970-72, vice president, 1972-77; Yaounde, Cameroon, US Ambassador, 1977-80, Equatorial Guinea, US Ambassador, 1979-80; US State Department, Washington, DC, deputy assistant secretary, 1980-81; Northwestern University, Evanston, IL, professor, 1981-85, associate director of African Studies, 1983-85, emerita professor, 1985-89.

Selected memberships:

Connecticut College, trustee, vice-chair; Hampshire College, trustee, vice-chair; Mount Holyoke College, trustee, vice-chair; Spelman College, trustee; US State Department, Advisory Council for African Affairs.

Selected awards:

Mary McLeod Bethune Women of Achievement Award, 1981; Mount Holyoke College, Ellen S. Grasso Award, 1982; US Information Agency, Outstanding Service Award, 1986; United Republic of Cameroon, Grand Officer Order of Valor, 1980; Associated Black Charities, Makers of History Award, 1990.

Smythe returned to teaching at the elite New Lincoln School in New York City as a senior core instructor from 1954 to 1959 and then as coordinator and principal until 1969. She was also an adjunct professor at the Baruch School, at Queens College, and at City University of New York (CUNY).

Became a Diplomat

In 1962 President John F. Kennedy appointed Mabel Smythe to the U.S. Advisory Commission on International Educational and Cultural Affairs. She also served as a member of the advisory council on African Affairs for the U.S. State Department from 1962 until 1970. In 1964 President Lyndon Johnson appointed her U.S. representative to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). When Hugh Smythe was appointed U.S. Ambassador to Syria and, after the 1967 "seven-day war," ambassador to Malta, Mabel Smythe worked at his side.

Returning to the United States Smythe wrote articles for the Encyclopedia Brittanica. As director of research and publications for the Phelps-Stokes Fund, and later as vice-president, Smythe edited The Black American Reference Book. In 1973 and 1974 she was a scholar-in-residence at the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.

After Hugh Smythe's death in 1977, President Jimmy Carter appointed Mabel Smythe U.S. Ambassador to the United Republic of Cameroon and subsequently to the Republic of Equatorial Guinea as well. In 1980 she returned to Washington as Deputy Assistant Secretary for African Affairs at the State Department. That year she was delegate to the South African Development Coordination Conference in Maputo, Mozambique, and conferred with the presidents of Zimbabwe and Liberia. In 1981 Smythe was a member of the U.S. Delegation to the International Conference to Assist Refugees.

Joined the Northwestern Faculty

The following year Smythe joined the faculty of Northwestern University as Melville J. Herskovits Professor of African Studies. In 1983 she became associate director of the program. She also co-directed the university's international internship program. In 1983 Smythe was a guest scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars at the Smithsonian.

In 1985 Smythe retired as an emerita professor and married Robert Haithe Jr. That year she co-led a group of faculty members from American black institutions to West Africa to establish communication networks with African scholars. She also became a consultant to the African Development Foundation. In 1986 Smythe-Haithe joined the board of the Ralph Bunche Institute on the United Nations at CUNY. Under the sponsorship of the African American Institute, Smythe Haithe chaired a delegation of observers to the 1993 presidential election in Madagascar.

Over the course of her career Smythe-Haithe worked with countless organizations and delegations. She told NBAW: "Since I am basically a people's person, I participate in many groups which serve people who struggle for global understanding, global communication, and at the same time, respect cultural diversity."

The recipient of numerous awards from a variety of organizations and institutions, Smythe Haithe donated her large collection of African art to Spelman College and her papers to the Library of Congress. In 2000 Smythe-Haithe was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease and moved to Tuscaloosa, Alabama, to live with her sister. She died in her home on February 7, 2006, at the age of 88.

Selected writings

(With Alan B. Howes) Intensive English Conversation, Kairyudo Press, 1953, 1954.

(With Hugh H. Smythe) The New Nigerian Elite, Stanford University Press, 1960, 1962, 1971.

(With Edgar S. Bley, eds.) Curriculum for Understanding, Valley Stream, NY, School District, 1965.

Editor and contributor, The Black American Reference Book, Prentice-Hall, 1969, 1976.

"Introduction," A Slaver's Log Book, or 20 Years' Residence in Africa, by Theophilus Conneau, Prentice-Hall, 1976.

Contributor, Beyond Constructive Engagement, Paragon House, 1986.

Contributor, Refugees: A Third World Dilemma, Rowan & Littlefield, 1987.



"Mabel Murphy Smythe-Haithe," Notable Black American Women, Book 1. Gale Research, 1992.


Atlanta Journal-Constitution, February 22, 2006, p. B5.

Washington Post, February 25, 2006, p. B6.


"Mabel Murphy Smythe-Haithe," Contemporary Authors Online, (February 24, 2007).

"Spelman Celebrates Legacies of Smythe-Haith, Killian and Yates," Spelman College Messenger, (March 13, 2007).

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