From Segregated Schools to Appeals Court Judge
In her many roles—college professor, lawyer, activist, author, and federal judge—Inez Smith Reid, J59, has championed racial and gender justice. Now 83, she credits her close-knit family for inspiring her efforts and giving her the confidence to succeed despite the obstacles she faced as a Black woman.
Her relatives “urged upon me the concept of noblesse oblige: use your God-given talents to work hard to make a contribution to society,” she said.
Smith Reid, who is a Tufts trustee emerita and member of the Board of Advisors of the School of Arts and Sciences, was recruited to attend Tufts by Jackson College Dean Katherine Jeffers. One of three Black women in the Class of 1959, she graduated magna cum laude. She and her twin brother George also earned degrees from Yale Law School, where they were the only Black students in the class of 1962.
Racial discrimination created barriers to a law career, but Smith Reid earned a master’s in political science from UCLA and a Ph.D. from Columbia University and enjoyed a 12-year career as a university professor. After a stint with the New York State Division for Youth, she returned to her hometown of Washington, D.C., in 1977 to become the deputy general counsel for regulation review at the former federal department of Health, Education, and Welfare (now Health and Human Services), followed by the watchdog position of inspector general at the Environmental Protection Agency. She went on to become the chief legal officer for the District of Columbia before entering private practice. In 1995, President Clinton nominated her as an associate judge on the District Court of Columbia Court of Appeals. She transitioned to senior judge in 2011 and retired in 2017. Her remarkable career was celebrated in 2019 at Yale Law School.
Listen to Inez Smith Reid talk about her upbringing and career.
Smith Reid spoke with Tufts Now about her career and her hope that Black women will be recognized for their pivotal role in shaping a society free of discrimination.
Tufts Now: What—and who—were early influences in your life?
Inez Smith Reid: My early influences clearly were home: My mother, grandmother, great uncle, and the [Plymouth Congregational Church of Washington, D.C.] My mother believed in education; she trained for a teaching career at Miner Teachers College and did some graduate work at Winston-Salem College in North Carolina, but she had to get a higher paying job than that of a teacher. She worked in the Federal Bureau of Engraving and Printing.
I attended Dunbar High School, where we had teachers who were highly educated, some with PhD degrees, who couldn't find jobs elsewhere. You have to remember that the public schools were fully segregated.
The segregated community was both a blessing and very frustrating. You couldn't go to the movie theaters. You couldn't go downtown to the stores to shop. When you got on the streetcars or buses, white people didn't want you to sit by them. But it was a blessing in the sense that it was a close-knit community.
Did your family have high expectations for you?
The first value was spirituality. Life would be centered in the church, which would be both a spiritual developer and an educational developer. My great uncle was a deacon and my grandmother a member of the missionary society there.
We were taught early on that education did not stop with a high school diploma and it did not stop with a college degree. Rather, we were all expected to go on to have professional careers.
One did not get far in a segregated society without education. It was difficult enough with education to climb up the ladder of success and contribution to the wider society, but without it, you really would not be able to do so.
How did you decide to attend Tufts?
When I was in high school, the dean of Jackson College, Katherine Jeffers, recruited me. The problem, however, was that I had no money to enroll. But the pastor of my church, Jefferson P. Rogers, asked me to be his church secretary. I worked full-time while I took afternoon and evening classes at Howard University. That was one of the ways that I earned enough money to transfer to Jackson in my sophomore year.
I did not see Tufts until I entered. But Dean Jeffers actually greeted me when I arrived at Richardson House, made sure I got to my room and was comfortably installed. I thought that was above and beyond her call of duty. I think she understood the environment from which I was coming, and she wanted to make sure that I was comfortable. At that particular time, Tufts had very few students of color, and it had very few Jewish students.
What was it like to be one of the few Black students on campus?
Clearly, being in the minority was a new feeling for me. Some of the students had not had any association with persons of color. They felt free to try to touch my hair and touch my skin. I had to go through that, but essentially, most of them were hospitable and personable. I tried to take it in stride. I had been raised with great pride in being an African American and being a Negro and being a person of color.
We'd always been taught not to let anything knock us off of our feet; just keep going on. When I attended Dunbar, I became familiar with one of Paul Laurence Dunbar's poems, Keep a-Pluggin’ Away. What he essentially says is, "No matter what the circumstances, you just have to keep going on.” You have to persevere in order to achieve the goals that you have set out for yourself. That's the kind of spirit I took into that atmosphere, or in the words of a Negro spiritual, "Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me ‘Round.”
Did you encounter racism in the classroom?
I remember sitting in a sociology class my first year at Tufts and the professor was talking about prejudice and segregation, and made the statement that racial prejudice is functional. And I thought to myself, "No, that's not right." Racial prejudice certainly is not functional. So I raised my hand and I challenged him on it. I think he was challenged to think about what he was saying.
That was a total surprise to me. I didn't expect any professor to make that kind of a statement. But it set the stage for me to be prepared for those kinds of statements coming out of left field.
Another example: When I was in law school in a torts class, one of the students who came from South Carolina, a white student, made the statement that the Klu Klux Klan was nothing but a social club. I looked at him and I looked at the professor and the professor knew I was about to make a challenge. The professor interceded and spoke directly to the student educating him on the nature of the KKK. So those kinds of surprising experiences, you just had to weather the storm and remember your roots and what you'd been taught as a young person and just not let it go.
You always needed to be careful of what kind of environment you were in because you didn't know whether or not you were in a dangerous situation or a situation that was just born of lack of knowledge.
At Tufts, you also added your voice, so to speak, to campus activities, including the debate club.
Debate was a passion for me, and I had a great time debating in tournaments in different parts of the country. It enabled me to continue with something akin to my high school oratory and extemporaneous speaking competitions as a means of challenging myself with intellectual exercises. Little did I know that those debating and oratory skills, as well as my Judiciary Council activities and the defense of that work, would plant the seeds of professorial, legal, and government skills necessary for moving ahead in those careers. In that regard, Tufts was a vital laboratory for career preparation.
When a Tufts Weekly editorial ridiculed the Jackson Judiciary Council, on which you served, you took that opinion to task, going so far as to say, “If anyone needs to be brought out of the ‘Dark Ages,’ it is the Tufts Weekly.”
As I recall, a series of editorials appeared around February/March 1959 under the heading, “Set Another Light,” and I sent letters to the editor responding to them; I was labeled as “conservative and submissive.” I enjoyed the give-and-take of the moment while trying to challenge some male perceptions of female students at Tufts.
What drew you to the profession of law?
My twin brother turned me in that direction. He’s the one who set the mark in terms of the racial struggle. When I was still at Tufts, and this is during the height of the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement, around '57, '58, we went to the Supreme Court to hear Thurgood Marshall argue a case called Cooper versus Aaron. [The landmark decision in that case upheld the ruling of Brown v. Board of Education that the doctrine of separate but equal is unconstitutional.] It was humbling to see this man, Thurgood Marshall, do such a magnificent job of arguing the case. And in fact, it was so eloquent that not a justice asked him a question, they just listened to him. And he won.
Were you welcomed into legal practice?
I ended up going to UCLA [after Yale] because it was next to impossible to find a job in the legal profession. [My brother] George and I had this strange experience in which the associate dean of the law school, who was a Southerner, called us into his office and made it quite clear that we shouldn't even think about applying to law firms for a job. He said we weren't going to be hired since we were Negros. So he suggested that we apply to the federal government.
I applied for two positions. One was as a juvenile judge’s clerk, and the second was a position in the U.S. Bureau of Prisons. The first one, the juvenile court judge said to me, "Well, last year I had a woman, a white woman, and this year is my year to hire a male." The second possibility, the representative from the U.S. Bureau of Prisons said to me, "Well, we just committed to a student from Howard University's Law School, and he needs the job more than you."
Fortunately I had a plan B, which was to continue studying. Anticipating maybe a career in the Foreign Service, I had applied for a Ford Foundation Foreign Area Training Fellowship. I went to UCLA to do intensive coursework in African studies with an eye toward going back to Senegal. I had been there shortly after their independence while I was in law school and working one summer with Operation Crossroads Africa.
But while I was at UCLA, I got a call from someone in the Placement Bureau at Yale's Law School asking me to consider going to the Congo to teach criminal law. The Congo was newly independent and I was asked to train magistrates. I was in the Congo for a year, but it was like being there for two years because it was in the midst of the civil war there.
What led you to working in the federal government in the mid-’70s?
[When] I was asked to take on the position of inspector general at the Environmental Protection Agency, I initially turned down the job because I didn't think that I had the skills. It was a job that required the inspector general to come in and to mesh together auditors and criminal investigators to create a unit to oversee fraud, waste, and abuse. But some people were sent to persuade me that I had to take the position. And so, I ultimately agreed to take it.
It proved to be a fascinating position. I remember one case in particular was down in Louisiana. And you talk about political pressure not to do what you are supposed to be doing. We got calls from a senator's office. The criminal investigators phoned in to say that they were really scared for their lives. So it was an interesting time, but we persevered. You need your backbone; you are in a spiritual mode and you just keep going on. If you've got talents and something to offer, then you have an obligation to make sure you carry through and do it.
In your long career, of what are you most proud?
I'm proud of having stayed the course and proud of the contributions that I've made to making this a better world, especially along the lines of gender and race discrimination. It was not an easy road. It was challenging. But I was prepared by a host of people. Shirley Chisholm running for president of the United States in 1972. Constance Baker Motley working with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund representing people. Pauli Murray, a transgender woman who ultimately became an attorney, a professor, and an Episcopal priest. Julia Cooper Mack, the first African American woman appointed to serve on the D.C. Court of Appeals [in 1975]. In fact, she was my mentor. All of these women helped shape me into the person that I ultimately became.
In the early ‘70s I was involved with the Black Women's Community Development Foundation, and also had written the book “Together” Black Women after doing a research study of the views and attitudes of Black women. I began to see that it was important for Black women to come out from behind male leadership and begin to assert themselves more, not as antagonists or competitors to Black men, but as collaborators whose work would be recognized as important and that would lead them into leadership positions.
In this last political go-round, you saw people like Stacey Abrams come to the forefront. And before her, you saw Sonia Sotomayor climb up to the Supreme Court. Now there's more of a collaborative spirit between African American men and women to achieve the same goals.
I can't help but think that Shirley Chisholm actually made the path for Kamala Harris to emerge as vice president of the United States. So a lot of this is all connected. History is important.
Over the years, education has clearly been vital to your career path – what else has been most important to your pursuit of these larger goals in your own life?
At this age when I look back, I think about my upbringing. I think about the central role of spiritual development in my family. I think about the words of noted theologian Howard Thurman. I actually got through college reading his works. One of the things that he says in his work is that as you start out in life, you have to have a working paper. You have to know what direction you want your life to take and what are the lines along which [you] decide to live [your] life.
I also think about hope for the future that was instilled in me. [There were] challenges along the way [and] opportunities that I didn't want to take, but noblesse oblige required me to take them. The important thing is [a] value structure that has been strong enough, despite discrimination, gender and racial, to enable me to go ahead and make contributions in education and law and government, and in society in general. So I can say I have no regrets. It's been a wonderful life's journey, and hopefully it will continue just a little bit longer.