Even though Nate Smith is in critical condition, a film on his accomplishments were shown at Imani Christian Academy. He is currently in a hospice.
Tim Stevens summed it up by noting that he wouldn’t be where he is without people like Smith.
“As we speak, he is in hospice care and apparently not doing well, but maybe he’ll fool us. He has before,” he said. “But remember, when he did what he did, Nate wasn’t the head of anything. He wasn’t educated, but he moved this city and this country. He is you. And you are Nate Smith.”
Many of Smith’s contemporaries are gone, and he himself is in very poor health, but thanks to film maker Erica Peiffer, long-time promoter Ed Meeks, and some remaining lights from the Civil Rights movement like Alma Speed Fox, his contributions to labor rights for African-Americans in Pittsburgh and across the country live on.
When Peiffer’s film biography of Smith, “What Does Trouble Mean,” was shown to an audience of 8th graders at Imani Christian Academy March 25, she, Meeks, and Fox, were joined by Louis “Hop” Kendrick, Black Political Empowerment Project founder Stevens, Pittsburgh NAACP Vice President Connie Parker and former SEIU Organizer Billy Joe Jordan, who gave the students perspective on the struggles Blacks faced in the 1960s, and Smith’s part in overcoming them.
“This is important not just for our students, but also for our teachers,” said Imani Principle Marilyn Barnett. “They need this history.”
Peiffer, who took five years to make the film, said she wants to have students understand who Smith is and what he did to increase Black participation and get the unions to change their practices.
“Nate was one of the most passionate people I’ve met,” Peiffer told the students. “And I would say to you, find what you are passionate about—and do it.”
Both Kendrick and Jordan said, at least in terms of the increased union participation for Blacks and women Smith engineered in the ’60s, we seem to have regressed.
Jordan said Blacks are still not represented in the construction trade unions in large numbers.
“The unions are still trying to protect their little pieces of the action,” he said. “While they should be expanding their training to Blacks and minorities to make up for retirements, it seems like things are going backwards, maybe even a little further than when Nate started.”
Fox, who was there when Smith started, agreed with Peiffer about his passion.
“When I first met him, he was a nobody, he was our gofer,” she said. “But one day when we were protesting, and the union said there weren’t any Blacks to operate heavy equipment. He said, ‘I can, and I can teach other people too.’ And he did. I loved him as a gofer, when he became a big shot on Jet Magazine and friends with Elsie Hillman, and I love him now.”
Meeks will show the film at Imani again April 5 at 7 p.m. for an adult audience. Peiffer said she would also present it at the Hill House Kauffmann Auditorium April 7 as part of a larger discussion on the present and future of African-Americans in the construction trades.
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