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Pittsburgh activist led integration of building trade unions

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Nate Smith
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Nate Smith in 1970
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About the writer

Chris Togneri is a Pittsburgh Tribune-Review staff writer and can be reached at 412-380-5632 or via e-mail.




By Chris Togneri
Saturday, April 2, 2011

A former prizefighter who became a giant among civil rights activists, Nate Smith picked a fight with Pittsburgh's predominantly white construction unions and ultimately won a battle that resulted in union jobs for blacks across the country.

"These union leaders were not pansies; he was challenging some tough guys," said former City Councilman Sala Udin, who demonstrated with Smith and other activists in the late 1960s. "Working with Nate required you to stiffen your backbone and be willing to take these guys on. And people lined up behind him by the thousands."

Smith died Thursday at Cedars Community Hospice in Monroeville after a long bout with dementia. He was 82.

"He lay down in front of a bulldozer," said Erica Peiffer, 28, producer of a documentary on Smith's life called "What Does Trouble Mean? Nate Smith's Revolution." Peiffer, a filmmaker at Robert Morris University's Center for Documentary Production and Study, said Smith's passion and gumption drew her to the project.

"He laid down his whole life to help others," Peiffer said. "That's someone I aspire to be like."

A teenage runaway who at 13 lied about his age to enlist in the Navy during World War II, Smith traded a boxing career for the security of a union job in 1951. Pittsburgh hosted the World Heavyweight Championships that year, and Smith — on the card as an alternate boxer — used his pay to buy four tickets, then swapped them for his union card as a heavy machinery operator.

He got married, bought a house and started a family. For a black man in Pittsburgh at the time, he had a lot to lose.

As construction boomed during Pittsburgh's renaissance in the 1960s, Smith risked it all to challenge the unions, whose ranks were only 2 percent black.

"He decided to break the grip of nepotism that was a stronghold in the trade unions," said Edward Meeks Jr., chairman of the Labor and Industry Committee of the Pittsburgh chapter of the NAACP. "He liked to say that it was not a black and white issue but a right and wrong issue, that it was something that should have been done years before."

When Allegheny County commissioners told a group of activists that they would hire qualified black workers but could not find any, Smith responded that he knew how to operate heavy equipment and would train any black person who wanted to learn.

"In that moment, he became a leader," said Alma Speed Fox, 88, of Stanton Heights, a longtime activist.

Smith led months of civil unrest in 1969, including economic boycotts, demonstrations and marches, that gained national attention.

At a protest during construction of Three Rivers Stadium, he lay down in front of a moving bulldozer to halt work at the site.

"That has to be one of the first things, if not the first thing, that people remember about Nate Smith," said Tim Stevens, president of the Black Political Empowerment Project, who marched with Smith. "He was a giant. He had an intensity about him and an impatience for justice to come, an impatience for delay."

Smith's efforts culminated in the Pittsburgh Plan, a landmark 1970 agreement between government, unions and activists to ensure integration of blacks into building trade unions.

"It had an impact across the country," said James McDonald, who demonstrated with Smith and today owns Monaloh Basin Engineers in Robinson. "The Pittsburgh Plan became a model for other cities."

Smith's achievements did not come easily. Marchers often wore hard hats to protect themselves during clashes with police and from white workers who tossed debris down as protesters passed construction sites.

"I still have the helmet Nate gave me when we were up against Pittsburgh police and their dogs," said McDonald, 75, of Washington. "He said, 'Wear a helmet in case they start swinging the clubs.' ... Everybody thinks they can do it on their own now, (but) somebody laid the foundation. They just don't realize the sacrifices that were made."

Producers of the documentary about Smith's life hope to spread awareness of his sacrifices and keep his legacy alive among children. Imani Christian Academy in East Hills, which will show the film Tuesday at the school, incorporated the documentary into its curriculum, officials said.

Smith's friends said they prefer to remember him in his prime as a powerfully built, intimidating man with a shaved head and intense stare. As his health failed in recent years, they said, he often was bedridden.

"It was hard to see Nate in this state," said Meeks, who visited him in February, shortly after his birthday.

"He said, 'How are things going, Meeks?' And I said, 'They're all right, but they could be better,'" Meeks recalled. "Nate said, 'Well, then, you make them better.' Then he pulled his hand out from under the sheet and shook my hand, and I felt like there was some life left in him.

"He still had a strong grip."

Smith's wife, Minnie Smith, died Feb. 10 at 84. They are survived by children Renee Smith Clark and Nate Smith Jr.

Smith will be buried in Homewood Cemetery. Details have not been finalized, but officials with The Rapp Funeral Home Inc. in Penn Hills said visitation will be Thursday, and the funeral service will be Friday.

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