Barbara Smith: A Legacy of Social Change

Barbara Smith. Photo courtesy of Gemma McIlhenny, Barbara Smith’s daughter.

August 24, 1947 – August 4, 2001

Barbara Smith was an activist and community leader from the Mantua section of West Philadelphia. Her obituary in The Philadelphia Inquirer (pdf) called her a “warrior of peace.” Barbara’s commitment to others and to justice inspired her work throughout her life which ended far too soon.

Barbara Ann Smith was born in Columbia, South Carolina on August 24, 1947. Her family moved to Philadelphia soon after.  As an African American growing up in Philadelphia, Barbara was exposed to racial and economic injustice.

After receiving a teaching certificate from Temple University, Barbara taught for nine years at the University City New School. Barbara was a gifted teacher, and she also had a knack for bringing people together. These skills served her well in her organizing efforts.

Barbara was involved in both her local and global community. She played a key role in organizing the Mantua Against Drugs Program in West Philadelphia, which gained national attention. For nine years, she was Executive Director of the Pennsylvania Jobs with Peace Campaign. Barbara also went with a delegation to El Salvador in the 1990s, where she saw connections between the level of poverty in both El Salvador and communities in the United States.

As National Media Chairperson, Barbara was instrumental in bringing 2.5 million women to the Million Women March in Philadelphia. She also opened a dialogue on community concerns through her ten years hosting “Community Forum” on WYBE Public Television. In a profile in The Philadelphia Tribune (pdf), she was quoted as saying, “I just always thought of myself as a teacher and activist. I had no communications background. I learned hands-on.”

Barbara Smith was an activist and community leader from West Philadelphia.

Barbara’s experience and passion were sought after by the greater community; she was a consultant for the Philadelphia School District and the Mayor’s Office, as well as a trusted friend and advisor to many.

Barbara’s life and work continues to inspire community organizers in Philadelphia to this day. At Bread & Roses, her joint commitment to teaching and social change was the inspiration behind the founding of the Barbara Smith Community School.