By France Griggs Sloat
MERRI GAITHER SMITH
Master of Education, Counseling, and Guidance, 1971
Retired Teacher and Administrator, Cincinnati Public Schools
Pioneer | Smith was one of five African-American teachers sent to Taft Elementary School in the Cincinnati Public Schools, then still a mostly all-white urban school. It was the beginning of school integration, and Taft’s population of black children had grown to about 10 percent. She taught second grade.
Chosen | Then she was transferred to Mt. Washington Elementary, where she was the only black teacher for three years. “As an African American, you’re comfortable with yourself and anyone else because you’re brought up to know there is going to be prejudice. And when you’re the only one in a situation, you’re prepared for it to happen anyway.”
Teaching Moment | One day her second graders told her a little white boy “used the N word on the playground.” She told them to ignore it, but they insisted she do something. So she called the little boy into her room. “I was very careful with what I said, and he started crying, and I said, ‘Sometimes we do things that we’re sorry about, and I’m sure you are sorry.’ And he said he was sorry. The mother came and apologized, and I told her he had also apologized. They learned a lot.”
Moving Up | A few years later, after earning her master’s at Xavier, she moved into an administrative position and ended up as assistant to superintendent Lee Etta Powell. They both retired in 1991.
Lauded | Smith has been recognized for her volunteerism with a number of awards including: the Cincinnati Enquirer’s Woman of the Year; 4C for Children’s Champions for Children Award; the Women of Distinction award from the Girl Scouts of Western Ohio; the Lighthouse Beacon Award; and the NCCJ Community Award.
Giving Back | Smith has co-founded several organizations that support children. The first was the Women’s Alliance in 1966 with other local women leaders. It provides educational and cultural enrichment to young women including college scholarships.
In Community | “I want to be part of a group of people doing things in the community and really making an effort to bring about change. It may be a small change, but we are making change.”
Advocate | She also co-founded Advocates for Youth Education in 1988 with Xavier alumnae Rosa Blackwell and Myrtis Powell, a former vice president at Miami University. The group of professional women pool their resources to provide scholarships to local high school seniors. It has provided more than $350,000 in scholarships since its founding.
Home Grown | “I saw my parents doing things for other people. My mother was always doing something for somebody else,
and my father hired a lot of people to work for his car-cleaning business, and if they needed help, he’d loan them money to meet their obligations.”