Son will reopen the neighborhood library

TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — Walter Smith Jr. knew what needed to be done, but it took time before he was emotionally ready.

At the corner of N. Albany Avenue and W. Cypress Street, her father, Walter Smith Sr., opened a library in two small houses, one of which was built by their family.

Smith Sr., former president of Florida A&M University, filled the library with books, artworks and artifacts he collected through decades of schooling and travel.

Opened in 2004, the Dr. Walter L. Smith Library has become a shelter and community center for children in the West Tampa neighborhood.

The library closed in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Smith Sr. died of heart disease in November. His son will reopen the library on June 11.

He said it should have been done sooner.

“Some of my fondest memories are seeing my dad at the table,” Smith Jr. said, pointing to a chair in the library meeting room. “He would sit there for hours, writing. I always knew I had to reopen this place, but it took me months to come back here. It was hard. For a while I just stayed away. But my father would have liked me to open it again.

The library at 905 N Albany Ave. will eventually be open Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays from 2-6 p.m., as it was when Smith Sr. was in charge.

For now, it will have irregular hours, open when Smith Jr. — an environmental engineering consultant — or volunteer has time.

“We’ll always open if someone calls and asks,” Smith Jr. said. “We’re here to serve.”

Library needs improvement – Smith Jr. recently repaired one of the outdoor patios. He also needs new computers.

Thus, Smith Jr. solicits funds from the community.

“We’re not part of the county library system,” Smith said. “We are deprived. We need help to make my father’s dream come true again.

The story

There was once a grapefruit orchard on the corner lot where the library now stands.

Smith Sr. was raised in a house behind this orchard.

“My grandfather, who was a longshoreman, bought the orchard and my grandmother designed a house around the corner,” Smith said. “They moved into the house in the 1950s.”

By then, her father had been sent to live with grandparents in Georgia because he was having too many problems in Tampa.

“That’s where his adventures began,” said Smith Jr.

Her father fled Georgia at age 16 to avoid being lynched for punching a white man who addressed him with a racial slur.

Smith Sr. then moved to New York, dropped out of high school, joined the military, served in the Korean War, earned a GED, enrolled at Gibbs Junior College in St. Petersburg for black students and earned a bachelor’s and master’s degree from FAMU. and a Ph.D. from Florida State University.

He returned to FAMU as President from 1977 to 1985, then headed to Africa as a Senior Fulbright Scholar at the University of Malawi in Central Africa. In 1994, he observed the election that made Nelson Mandela President of the Republic of South Africa.

“When Dad got home,” Smith Jr. said, “he was heartbroken by what he saw.”

Children in her childhood neighborhood hung out on the streets and lacked basic knowledge of black and African history.

So Smith Sr. bought the house next door to his parents’ house and converted the two into a library focused on those subjects.

“The kids loved it,” Smith Jr. said. “They had computers and they were getting help with their homework. They stayed from after school until bedtime.

In recent years, Smith Jr. said, the library has been used more as a meeting space than an after-school program, but he hopes it will return to its roots.

“I want kids to come and read these books and learn,” he said.

Artifacts include masks Smith Sr. brought from Africa and tools Smith Jr.’s great-great-grandfather used as a shoemaker on the plantation where he was enslaved.

Among the rarest books in the library is an autographed copy of Booker T. Washington’s autobiography, Up from Slavery.

But Smith Jr. said the most personal book isn’t on the shelves yet.

He is working with a publisher on a second edition of his father’s book, Magnificent Twelve: Florida’s Black Junior Colleges. Released in 1994, the book tells the story of Florida’s black junior colleges.

“I cried when they said the book was almost ready,” said Smith Jr. “This second edition is something he wanted. This book is part of his legacy, and so is this library.

how to help

Those interested in donating or volunteering at the Walter L. Smith Sr. Library should call 813 531-1845.

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