News & Politics

A New Memoir From a Man Whose Father Was Born Enslaved

The book is a chronicle of an eventful life.

Daniel Smith, author of Son of a Slave. Photograph courtesy of Loretta Neumann.

Daniel Smith decided to call his memoir Son of a Slave—because, remarkably, that description fit him. Smith’s father, Abram, was born into slavery in Virginia in 1863, and he was 70 when Daniel was born. Last year, Smith celebrated his 90th birthday—most likely as the last living child of a formerly enslaved person.

Smith wrote the book at home in Takoma DC, working with his wife, Loretta Neumann. He’d started it back in 2017, and researchers had helped him uncover information about his family. (He’d never even known his grandparents’ names.) During the pandemic, he got serious about finishing the project.

Though Abram Smith was a young child when he and his family were freed, he grew up hearing the horror stories. Later, he’d share them with his own family. Daniel, too little to take part in those discussions, would sneak in and eavesdrop as his dad talked about the whipping post and hanging tree.

Smith recounts those terrors in the book, but despite the title, it doesn’t focus on Abram’s story. (Smith was just six when his father was hit by a car and killed.) Instead, the memoir offers anecdotes about Smith’s life, from his childhood in Winsted, Connecticut, to his stint with an antipoverty program in 1960s Alabama to his later life in DC, where he ran the federal Area Health Education Centers program and was head usher at the National Cathedral.

The book is a chronicle of accomplishment, but it also documents plenty of hardship and racism: a terrifying incident when he was chased by a car full of Klan members, for example, or when the owner of a Bethesda house refused to sell it to Smith’s family because of their race. A big chunk of the book revisits his difficult experience running the AHEC program and an effort to unfairly remove him, which he describes as “my personal civil rights battle.”

As the memoir neared completion in early 2022, Smith and Neumann connected with a literary agent, who was confident she could sell it to a major publisher. But there was a problem: Smith’s health was failing, and he was told the book wouldn’t come out until at least 2024. “He just didn’t know if he was going to make it, and he really wanted to see the book done while he was alive,” says Neumann. The agent raised the idea of self-publishing. “At least we’d have a real book before he died. We were all very candid; he was very realistic about it. And so we said, ‘Okay, we’re going to get this done.’ ”

The last thing Smith wrote was an epilogue, dated October 2022, in which he discusses systemic racism and how we’re “regressing rather than progressing in the areas of civil rights.” In the final paragraph, he writes that “we cannot continue in this nation hating each other. Although my father was born into slavery, he never hated anyone.”

In the end, Smith didn’t get to hold the book. He died on October 19, and Neumann received copies nine days later, just before his funeral. Still, Smith had seen and signed off on the final proofs, and Son of a Slave was what he wanted it to be. Recalling that moment when she finally held it, Neumann can’t hide her emotion: “I knew that he would be so pleased.”

This article appears in the July 2023 issue of Washingtonian.

Politics and Culture Editor

Rob Brunner grew up in DC and moved back in 2017 to join Washingtonian. Previously, he was an editor and writer at Fast Company and other publications. He lives with his family in Chevy Chase DC.