Smith, Jessie Carney 1930–

views updated May 29 2018

Jessie Carney Smith 1930

Librarian, author

Learned Importance of Values and Education

Began Career at Fisk University

Published First Book

Selected works


A product of the segregated South, Jessie Carney Smith learned to turn oppression into opportunity. As a student she obtained four degrees during a time when circumstances prohibited many women from acquiring even one degree. As a librarian she erased the image of a stern disciplinarian whose glasses cling to the tip of her nose; instead she presents herself as a powerful and innovative source who is eager to share her knowledge. As a writer she has breathed life into the stories of those whose efforts, courage, and triumphs might not otherwise be shared and explored the trials, struggles, and images of blacks in America. As a person she has followed the examples of her family and discovered the rewards of giving.

Born Jessie Carney on September 24, 1930, Smith grew up outside of Greensboro, North Carolina. She had two older siblings and a twin brother. Her parents, James and Versona (Bigelow) Carney, graduates of North Carolina A&T, ran Jamess small business. The whole family would often help in the store. Smiths maternal grandparents lived only yards from the Carney home.

Learned Importance of Values and Education

Smith has credited her family and its values with shaping her life. Her fathers work ethic influenced her own drive for accomplishment. I think if I had not had such an addiction to work to study, I would not have achieved whatever I have achieved, and that is what it takes to go far, she told Contemporary Black Biography (CBB). Smith learned the joy of giving from her mother and maternal grandparents. Many people visited my grandparents on weekends and the tradition then was to give that visitor something special. My grandmother liked to do a lot of canning. So when people visited my grandmother, before they left, she would give them a jar of fruit or vegetables. Or when visitors would come, they would share a desert or some fruit and they did it freely, Smith told CBB. I think that persuaded me to think of giving as something very special.

Smith attended grammar school in a four-room school-house in Mt. Zion, North Carolina where she received an education that she and her siblings did not appreciate until later. When she went to high school, Jim Crow laws dictated that Smith and her siblings were bused to Greensboro. At James B. Dudley High School, they realized that their rural education, which they thought inferior, actually had its benefits. When we went there, we found out that our grammar was so much better than that of the kids who were from the city. We found out that we knew so many things that they didnt know, she told CBB.

When Smith and her siblings were not at school or attending cultural events like concerts or art exhibits with their parents, they could often be found reading. They even enjoyed reading their fathers college textbooks. Knowledge was something that Smith sought from the beginning, but becoming a librarian was the farthest thing from her mind. I wanted to be a fashion designer. I wanted to attend Pratt, that a black fashion

At a Glance

Born Jessie Carney on September 24, 1930 in Greensboro, NC, married Frederick Douglas Smith, 1950 (divorced); children: Frederick Douglas Smith, Jr. Education: North Carolina A&T Univ., B.A., home economics, 1950; Cornell Univ., 1950; Michigan State Univ., M.A., child development, 1956; George Peabody College, Vanderbilt Univ., M.A., library science, 1957; Univ. of Illinois, Ph.D., library science, 1964.

Career: Nashville City Schools teacher, 1957; Tennessee State Univ., head cataloger and instructor, 1957-60; Univ. of Illinois, teaching assistant, 1961-63; Tennessee State Univ., coordinator of library services, asst. professor, 1963-65; Fisk Univ., librarian, professor, 1965, William and Camille Cosby distinguished chair, 1993; Alabama A&M Univ., assoc. professor, 1971-73; Adult Education Program of Metropolitan Nashville Schools, teacher, 1987; guest lecturer at many universities.

Member: NAACP; Pi Gamma Mu; Beta Phi Mu, national president, 1976-77; Alpha Kappa Sorority; Links, Inc., Henderson Area Chapter president, 1983-87; National Coalition of 100 Black Women, Metropolitan Nashville Chapter.

Awards: Certificate of Achievement, Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, 1976; Academic/Research Librarian of the Year, Association of College and Research Library, 1985; Distinguished Alumni Award, Department of Library Science, Peabody College, Vanderbilt Univ., 1987; Distinguished Alumni Award, Univ. of Illinois, 1990; Candace Award for Education, National Coalition of 100 Black Women, 1992; Key to the City of Oak Ridge, Tennessee, 1997; Living Legends Award, Pentecostal Tabernacle Church, 1998.

Address: Office University Library, Fisk University, 17th Ave., North, Nashville, TN 37203.

designer would have had a difficult time becoming successful, she told CBB.

After graduating from high school in 1947, Smith decided to follow in her parents footsteps by attending North Carolina A&T where she studied home economics. As Smith told CBB, A matter of at least a college degree was just part of growing up; stopping short of a college degree was not an option. She finished her Bachelor of Science degree in 1950, but at a time when home economic degrees led to teaching positions, Smiths heart was not yet with the idea of being a teacher. She headed north to New York in search of a masters degree. Smith attended Cornell, studying textiles and clothing. Her studies were interrupted when she married Frederick Douglas Smith and gave birth to her son, Frederick Douglas Smith, Jr. After a brief hiatus, Smith returned to her collegiate studiesthis time at Michigan State University. In 1956 she received a Masters of Art degree in child development, but soon learned the job market for African-American females was bleakeven those who were armed with two degrees.

Smith and her new family settled in Nashville where she accepted a clerical position at Tennessee State Universitys library. Soon her curiosity for the field of library science led her to George Peabody College of Vanderbilt University, where she received a Masters of Arts in library science in 1957. By this time her marriage was dissolving, but she was determined to realize her dreams and set an example for her son.

Began Career at Fisk University

Smith moved on to Fisk University where she was secretary to head librarian and acclaimed author, Arna Bontemps. Under his mentorship, Smith gained valuable experiences that meant more than checking out books or cataloging. At Fisk, home to one of the countrys most distinctive collections of black literature, there were opportunities to learn, grow, and share a unique wealth of knowledge. I think one who is surrounded by such an influence and fails to take advantage of it is really lacking tremendously in vision, Smith told CBB.

In 1964 Smith became the first African American to receive a Ph.D. in library science. The following year, she succeeded Bontemps as Fisk Universitys head librarian. While being Fisks librarian was a full-time job, Smith lectured at numerous venues and became a visiting professor at universities including Alabama A&M, Cornell, and Vanderbilt. Smith became as much a part of Fisk University as the library itself, and used her experiences to mold its direction. Leading the university into a new library and pursuing grants to develop the collections, expand the archival program, and obtain a state-of-the art media program, Smith earned the title as the dean of black libraries. The library became a vital part of Smiths life, but more than twenty years after beginning her career at Fisk, an editors suggestion, and her own experiences as a published author, prompted her to pursue another avenue. That avenue did not remove her from the library, but it did help her discover another passionwriting.

Subsequent to having an academic paper published, Smith explored professional writing. After she considered her experiences, writing about black culture seemed only natural. According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, The oneand onlygood thing Smith has to say about segregation was that it fostered a school system in which black children were infused with black history and black heroes. Smith began writing about black history and heroes and was soon preparing for a major project that, unbeknownst to her, had begun nearly two decades earlier.

For years, Smith had been collecting notes on black women whose contributions were worthy of mention. By the time she finished, Smith had collected notes on 1, 000 women. What made the selections unique was that the list included well-known women like Harriet Tubman, but also included lesser-known women like Millie Halea nurse who founded a hospital and training school for black nurses during the early 1900s. It was the lesser-known women who Smith found the most interesting to write about. When Im writing a biography, I would rather write about an obscure person than one whos whos well known because I like to provide new or little-known information to people, she told CBB. After completing her collection, Smith found a publisher, narrowed her list to 500 names with the help of an advisory board, and selected writers to prepare the biographies.

Still maintaining normal working hours at Fisks library, Smith found a way to dedicate a considerable amount of time to completing the book. According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, her weekdays were spent in the following way: Most days began at 4 a.m., Smiths usual time for rising. But instead of taking an hour-long walk and leisurely reading the paper, shed sit down at the computer placed on her kitchen table and write for two hours or so. Then she would get in some quick exercise and head to work at her 8-to-5 job at Fisk. During lunch shed try to wedge in a few paragraphs or make a few phone calls. After work, shed stay at the library for a few hours of uninterrupted concentration. Then home, dinner, work and bed.

Published First Book

Five years, 200 contributors, and many long days later, Smiths baby, Notable Black American Women, was born. They were determined in spite of the odds, Smith was quoted as saying in the Nashville Banner of the women in her collection. They were doing things when race relations were at their worst. They dared to speak out on sex and race discrimination, she added. According to Fisk University Reports, American Libraries named Notable Black American Women an outstanding reference source in 1992. Four years later, Smith wrote a second volume of the book.

In addition to Notable Black American Women, Smith wrote numerous books including Black Firsts (1994) and Notable Black American Men (1999); both also received recognition for being outstanding reference books. In 1999 she collaborated with legendary poet and writer Nikki Giovanni on her work called Grand Fathers, which chronicled African-American grandfathers and the legacies they left. Grand Fathers featured John Harvey Bigelow, Smiths maternal grandfather, who lived to be 101 years old.

During her exceptional career, Smith has held many positions, served on numerous committees, and received extensive honors. She has served on Fisk Universitys Womens Studies Committee and was a faculty representative to the Fisk Board of Trustees. Smith received distinguished alumni awards from both Pea-body College of Vanderbilt University (1987) and the University of Illinois (1990). In 1993 she was named Fisk Universitys William and Camille Cosby Professor in the Humanitiesa distinguished chair that only one person before her has held. In 1997 she received the key to the city of Oak Ridge, Tennessee. A year later Smith was presented the Living Legends Award from Nashvilles Pentecostal Tabernacle Church. These are only a few of her accolades; still her personal reward does not come from the formal honors but the small affirmations. Its very rewarding to know that you have helped shape a life, career, or ones direction, she told CBB. Smith still attributed her success to the motivation of people like her 98-year-old mother. If theres such a thing as a living angel, I think shes it. Shes been a real help through example, she told CBB.

Smith has further plans for the library and her writing career. I find this is a very exciting time to be in library and information sciences and to become involved in the constant changes that technology brings, she told CBB. Given the low funding usually allocated to libraries, Smith admitted that she could have enjoyed her position much more if funds and been available to make Fisks library high-tech. Outside the library, Smiths newest projects included a third volume of Notable Black American Women, set to be published in 2002.

While Smith paved her own way, she hoped that more young people take an interest in the fields from which she has learned so much. She told CBB, Id like to see young people develop into researchers and writers. They need to be serious about what they do and fully commit themselves to it. I think they will experience something that can be very rewarding for them.

Selected works

(as editor)

Notable Black American Women Book I, Gale Research, Inc, 1991.

Epic Lives: One Hundred Black Women Who Made a Difference, Visible Ink Press, 1992.

Black Firsts, Gale Research, Inc., 1994.

African American Breakthroughs: 500 Years of Black Firsts, UXL, 1995.

Notable Black American Women Book II, Gale Research, Inc, 1996

Notable Black American Men, Gale Research, 1999.

Notable Black American Women Book III, Gale, 2002.



Fisk University Reports, Summer 1995.

Nashville Banner, February 13, 1992, B-l, B-4.

Philadelphia Inquirer, April 19, 1992, K-l, K-6.


Additional information for this biography was obtained through a personal interview with Contemporary Black Biography on April 22, 2002.

Shellie M. Saunders

Smith, Jessie Carney

views updated Jun 27 2018

Jessie Carney Smith

American librarian and educator Jessie Carney Smith (born 1930) devoted her life to perpetuating the study of the history and culture of African American people through library science.

In 1964 Smith became the first African American to earn a Ph.D. in library science from the University of Illinois. Beyond the confines of academia where she found her niche, she is widely known for her written collections that document the culture and achievements of African Americans and of Black people worldwide. Smith has lectured widely and served in a variety of international assignments.

Greensboro Native

Jessie Carney Smith was born Jessie Carney in rural North Carolina on September 24, 1930. One of four children born to James and Vesona (Bigelow), she was the youngest of the brood and the twin sister of Jodie. Raised outside of Greensboro, Smith lived with her family in a home that was situated adjacent to the tobacco farm of her grandparents, John Harvey and Minnie (Lea) Bigelow. Instilled by their parents with a strong work ethic, the Carney siblings spent much of their time helping with their father's business, a gas station and repair shop with a convenience market.

Growing up in the southern United States soon after the onset of the Great Depression, Smith and her family faced the cultural taboos of a segregated society. Regardless, they attended concerts, art exhibits, and other cultural events made available to them in Greensboro. Smith began her formal education in 1935, at age four, as a "primer" student in a four-room schoolhouse in nearby Mount Zion. She proved to be a precocious child and was double promoted from first grade to third grade, continuing at Mount Zion through the seventh grade before attending James B. Dudley High School in Greensboro. Because of segregation, her social contacts and life experience revolved around the African American population. Her primary, secondary, and collegiate education transpired exclusively at segregated schools. Thus she was exposed to history from the vantage point of her African American heritage, a circumstance that influenced her later dedication to the study of African American history and culture.

The Carney children, whose parents were alumni of North Carolina A&T, acquired a great respect for learning and education. Inspired by their parents and other family members, the siblings spent time outside of the classroom in reading the many books—including college texts—which were readily available around the Carney household. In 1946, following up on a youthful aspiration to become a fashion designer, Smith enrolled at North Carolina A&T; she graduated with a B.S. in home economics in 1950.

Smith at this time in her life had not determined to become a teacher; neither had she given consideration to spending her life as an academic in the field of library science. She spent the fall of her college graduation year at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, where she studied textiles, clothing, and related arts, while becoming increasingly ambivalent about the clothing industry as an option for African Americans. During this time of uncertainty over her career, she married Frederick Douglas Smith on December 22, 1950, in Maryland, before making her way back to Greensboro. After a brief move to the state of Delaware, the couple settled permanently in Nashville, Tennessee.

Dr. Smith

In 1953, disappointed at the limited career opportunities available to her as an African American and a woman, Smith accepted a clerk's job at Fisk University. Holding little aspiration at that time of becoming the head librarian of the university within twelve years, she resumed her education regardless, enrolling at Michigan State University in East Lansing from 1954 to 1955, to earn an M.A. in child development. She returned to Nashville and resumed her clerical position while completing her master's thesis, yet her frustration with the job market persisted. Even with post-graduate work completed, her options for employment were few.

The mother of a young son by now, Smith opted to pursue a curriculum of library science at Nashville's George Peabody College for Teachers (now a part of Vanderbilt University). She earned an M.A. in 1957 and that spring secured a teaching position with the Nashville city schools. Later that year she accepted employment at Tennessee A&I College (now Tennessee State University) in the capacity of head cataloguer and instructor. In 1960, on fellowship from the State of Tennessee, she enrolled in a doctoral program at the University of Illinois, where she worked as a teaching assistant for three years. Having gone through a divorce in April of 1963, Smith returned to Nashville nonetheless in accordance with the terms of her fellowship, which required state service in Tennessee after graduation. She spent two years as assistant professor and coordinator of library services at Tennessee State University.

Upon completion of the graduate program requirements at University of Illinois in 1964, Smith distinguished herself as the first African American ever to earn a doctoral degree in the field of library science from that university. In 1965 she joined the library administration and faculty at Fisk University, succeeding Arna Bontemps as head librarian and establishing a lifelong career.

The 1970s

From her anchor position on the library staff at Fisk, Smith branched out and embarked on a lifelong pursuit of indexing and chronicling the cultural history of African Americans. She spent the 1970s as a part-time lecturer at Peabody Library School and from 1971 to 1973 served as an associate professor and part-time consultant at Alabama A&M University. She spent 1971 through 1974 as the Tennessee representative of the African-American Materials Project, based in North Carolina, and she was a visiting lecturer at the University of Tennessee School of Library Science in 1973–74.

During these years her duties at Fisk were augmented to include a post as director of the federally funded Internship in Black Studies Librarianship, from 1972 to 1975. In that capacity she was charged with overseeing the Miniinstitutes in Black Studies Librarianship in the spring of 1975. That same year she served as the director of the school's Research Program in Ethnic Studies Librarianship (also federally funded). In the spring of 1979 she directed the Fisk Institute on Ethnic Genealogy for Librarians.

With the scope of her influence continually expanding, Smith was appointed director of a library study for the Tennessee Higher Education Commission in 1975–76. Likewise, she served on the staff of the Institute in Multicultural Librarianship at the University of Michigan during the summer of 1975. Appointed to a fellowship assignment through the National Urban League, she served in the capacity of Expert to the Library of Congress Processing Department in 1974. In 1976, she served as a consultant to the Oak Ridge National Laboratory Central Research Library, again through the Urban League fellowship program; and from 1974 to 1980 she participated on the visiting team to the American Library Association (ALA) Committee on Accreditation.

African American Historian

As Smith established a niche for herself in the American academic community, she immersed herself in researching the history of the African American people. Armed with enormous pride in her heritage, she increasingly turned toward writing and editing books that detailed the accomplishments of African American individuals throughout history. Likewise she espoused the habit of collecting news items that recorded the achievements of contemporary African Americans in the United States and abroad.

On a mandate to study libraries in Black colleges, through a fellowship from the former Council on Library Resources, Smith completed her first published work in 1977. This publication, Black Academic Libraries and Research Collections: an historical study, has been used heavily in determining funding support for these college libraries. By 1980 she had published two dozen educational pieces and bibliographies.

A few years later, encouraged by her colleagues and professional peers, Smith organized a definitive effort to document the lives of notable African American women. The project culminated in the publication of an award-winning volume, called Notable Black American Women, in 1992. In these pages, interspersed among the biographies of popular contemporary personalities and renowned individuals from U.S. history, Smith included vignettes of lesser-known African Americans, women whose contributions to American life and society were no less significant than those by more recognizable names. This provocative approach by Smith earned critical acclaim.

With the success of her first collection, Smith embraced yet another mission in life: to document the lives of African Americans, from a variety of unique vantage points. In 1990 her compilation of the Statistical Record of Black America was cited among the 30 best references volumes of the year by Library Journal. She published Epic Lives in 1992, followed in 1994 by the original edition of Black Firsts, which was recognized by American Libraries as one of the outstanding reference sources of 1995. Smith then reprised the Notable Black American Women collection, publishing Volume 2 in 1996. A similar publication, Notable Black American Men, appeared in 1999; it too won a number of awards. Notable Black American Women, Volume 3, was published in 2003. Her Powerful Black Women appeared in 1997, followed by Black Heroes of the Twentieth Century in 1998 (re-issued in 2001).

Respected as a reviewer as well as an author and editor, Smith's critiques have appeared in College and Research Libraries and in Journal of Library History. Her special reports have been commissioned by such bodies as the State of North Carolina, the U.S. Office of Civil Rights, and Oak Ridge National Laboratory. She has lectured at dozens of venues, including the Library of Congress, University of Illinois, Cornell, University of Wisconsin, Jackson State University, Howard, and Savannah State College where she led a faculty workshop and made an appearance as keynote speaker.

Literate in French and German, Smith is well traveled. She lectured worldwide during the 1980s and served in various foreign assignments over a period of three decades. She attended the Pugwash Conference in Nova Scotia in August 1968 and appeared at the University of London in June 1972. In June 1973 she served as director of the librarians' conference workshop in Tokyo, Japan, for the United States Army in the Pacific. She was a book reviewer for the Black Bermudan program at Civic Hall in Hamilton, Bermuda, in May 1980, and spent December 1984 on educational tour to Dakar, Senegal. Among her more notable U.S. projects, in 1984–86 she directed "I've Been to the Mountain Top: A Civil Rights Legacy." For this federally funded lecture program she worked in conjunction with prominent civil rights leaders Coretta Scott King, Lerone Benett, and James Farmer.

Smith has been seen on television talk shows, including Today in Bermuda in 1980, Nashville's Jumpstreet in 1981, Black Pulse in 1982, and on Black Entertainment Television in 1992. She joined Keith Rush on WASP-AM radio in 2001 and Pete Braley on WBSM-AM radio in 2002. Heard on National Public Radio's "Talk of the Nation" in February 2003, she discussed Black firsts with Neal Conan.


Socially active throughout her lifetime, Smith is renowned for her warmth and humanity, traits that she attributes to the example set by her parents and her grandparents. Her memberships include the American Library Association, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), The Links Incorporated, The Metropolitan Nashville Chapter of the Coalition of 100 Black Women, and Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority. From 1976 to 1977 she presided as president of the national library honor society, Beta Phi Mu, the first black to be so empowered. Central to her message is the importance of keeping open the doors of research and knowledge for upcoming generations of students.

Committed to physical fitness, Smith walks, jogs, works with hand weights, and experiments with low-calorie recipes. Her avocations include flower gardening and reading, especially biographies.


Contemporary Black Biography, Gale Group, 2003.


"Jessie Carney Smith," AKA Authors, (December 16, 2003).

"Vita" (resume of) Jessie Carney Smith, 2003.

(Conversation with) Jessie Carney Smith, January 2004.