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Henrietta Smith

Library science professor and school media librarian Henrietta Mays Smith was born on May 2, 1922, in Harlem, a neighborhood in New York. Smith is the daughter of Nettie Johnson Mays, a domestic worker, and Henry Lucas Mays, a chef who worked on riverboats on the Hudson. Smith attended Hunter College, studying English and history. She earned her B.A. degree from Hunter College in 1943 and in 1946, she received her B.S.L.S. degree from Columbia University. Smith then moved to Tallahassee, Florida, where she served as a cataloguer at Florida A&M University for the next two years. Dr. Smith received her M.S.L.S. degree from Columbia University in 1959.

Smith started her career working for Florida A&M University's Library as a cataloger and later returned to New York to complete her M.S.L.S. degree. She also worked at the Countee Cullen Branch of the New York Public Library as a children's librarian where she become interested in storytelling and the power of oral traditions. In 1949, she married Isaiah Courtney Smith, a young civil rights lawyer. Returning once again to Florida, Smith worked for Broward County Public Schools, as a school media specialist. In 1975, at the age of fifty three, she received her Ph. D. degree from the University of Miami and joined the faculty of the Florida Atlantic University's School of Education. After ten years at Florida Atlantic, she left the institution and joined the faculty of the University of South Florida's School of Library Science where she was the first and only African American faculty member on campus. She specialized in children's librarianship and the art of storytelling.

Since retiring in 1993, Smith has been remained active in the library science field. She has sat on many American Library Association (ALA) selection committees for several literary awards such as the Coretta Scott King Awards, the Caldecott Award, and the Newbery Award. In 1994, she edited the book The Coretta Scott King Book Awards: From Vision to Reality. She has been a board member of the Florida Association of Media in Education (FAME) and the Florida Library Association (FLA) and has continued her general membership. She has also been involved with Storytellers Association, an association which teaches and develops multicultural storytelling and the oral tradition. In 2000, she wrote the introduction to Lift Every Voice and Sing: A Pictorial Tribute to the Negro National Anthem.

Smith lives in Florida with her husband, I.C. Smith, now a retired judge. She has two adult children, Cynthia Smith Jackson and Robin Smith. In 2008, she was honored by the American Library Association (ALA) as the recipient of the Association for Library Service to Children's (ASCL) Distinguished Service Award for Smith's accomplishments and contributions to children's librarianship.

Henrietta Mays Smith was interviewed by The HistoryMakers on August 13, 2007.

Accession Number




Interview Date


Last Name


Maker Category
Marital Status



Hunter College

Columbia University

University of Miami

Morris High School

P.S. 139 Frederick Douglass School

Julia Ward Howe Junior High School 81

First Name


Birth City, State, Country

New York



Favorite Season

Christmas, Easter


New York

Favorite Vacation Destination

Anywhere New

Favorite Quote

Take Time To Smell The Roses.

Bio Photo
Speakers Bureau Region State


Interview Description
Birth Date


Birth Place Term
Speakers Bureau Region City




Favorite Food

Chicken Wings

Short Description

Library science professor and school media librarian Henrietta Smith (1922 - ) became the first African American faculty member at the University of South Florida’s School of Library and Information Science.


University of South Florida, School of Library Science

Florida Atlantic University, College of Education

Broward County Public Schools

Countee Cullen Branch, New York Public Library

Florida A&M University

New York Public Library

Favorite Color

Blue, Yellow

Timing Pairs

<a href="">Tape: 1 Story: 1 - Slating of Henrietta Smith's interview</a>

<a href="">Tape: 1 Story: 2 - Henrietta Smith lists her favorites</a>

<a href="">Tape: 1 Story: 3 - Henrietta Smith describes her mother's family background</a>

<a href="">Tape: 1 Story: 4 - Henrietta Smith describes her father's family background</a>

<a href="">Tape: 1 Story: 5 - Henrietta Smith describes her upbringing in New York City's Harlem neighborhood</a>

<a href="">Tape: 1 Story: 6 - Henrietta Smith remembers her parents' cooking</a>

<a href="">Tape: 1 Story: 7 - Henrietta Smith remembers her relationship with her father</a>

<a href="">Tape: 1 Story: 8 - Henrietta Smith describes her family's holiday traditions</a>

<a href="">Tape: 1 Story: 9 - Henrietta Smith describes her mother's emphasis on etiquette</a>

<a href="">Tape: 1 Story: 10 - Henrietta Smith remembers her lessons in elocution</a>

<a href="">Tape: 1 Story: 11 - Henrietta Smith talks about her sister</a>

<a href="">Tape: 1 Story: 12 - Henrietta Smith describes her father's personality</a>

<a href="">Tape: 1 Story: 13 - Henrietta Smith describes her neighborhood in New York City</a>

<a href="">Tape: 1 Story: 14 - Henrietta Smith describes the sights, sounds and smells of her childhood</a>

<a href="">Tape: 1 Story: 15 - Henrietta Smith remembers the Grace Congregational Church of Harlem</a>

<a href="">Tape: 1 Story: 16 - Henrietta Smith recalls her experiences at P.S. 81 in New York City</a>

<a href="">Tape: 1 Story: 17 - Henrietta Smith describes her early aspirations</a>

<a href="">Tape: 2 Story: 1 - Henrietta Smith describes her mother's parenting</a>

<a href="">Tape: 2 Story: 2 - Henrietta Smith remembers Morris High School in New York City</a>

<a href="">Tape: 2 Story: 3 - Henrietta Smith describes her experiences at New York City's Hunter College</a>

<a href="">Tape: 2 Story: 4 - Henrietta Smith remembers attending Hunter College with Ruby Dee</a>

<a href="">Tape: 2 Story: 5 - Henrietta Smith remembers volunteering at the 135th Street Library in New York City</a>

<a href="">Tape: 2 Story: 6 - Henrietta Smith talks about the 135th Street Library</a>

<a href="">Tape: 2 Story: 7 - Henrietta Smith recalls attending library school at Columbia University</a>

<a href="">Tape: 2 Story: 8 - Henrietta Smith recalls working as a cataloguer at the Florida Agricultural and Mechanical College for Negroes in Tallahassee, Florida</a>

<a href="">Tape: 2 Story: 9 - Henrietta Smith recalls her return to the New York Public Library system</a>

<a href="">Tape: 2 Story: 10 - Henrietta Smith describes the work of Augusta Braxton Baker</a>

<a href="">Tape: 2 Story: 11 - Henrietta Smith recalls the discrimination faced by African American authors</a>

<a href="">Tape: 2 Story: 12 - Henrietta Smith remembers the notable African American librarians</a>

<a href="">Tape: 3 Story: 1 - Henrietta Smith recalls her storytelling lessons from Augusta Braxton Baker</a>

<a href="">Tape: 3 Story: 2 - Henrietta Smith recalls the Hans Christian Andersen storytelling hour</a>

<a href="">Tape: 3 Story: 3 - Henrietta Smith remembers Jean Blackwell Hutson</a>

<a href="">Tape: 3 Story: 4 - Henrietta Smith describes her duties as a children's librarian</a>

<a href="">Tape: 3 Story: 5 - Henrietta Smith remembers meeting and marrying her husband</a>

<a href="">Tape: 3 Story: 6 - Henrietta Smith remembers the birth of her first daughter</a>

<a href="">Tape: 3 Story: 7 - Henrietta Smith describes her husband's law practice</a>

<a href="">Tape: 3 Story: 8 - Henrietta Smith remembers moving to Delray Beach, Florida</a>

<a href="">Tape: 3 Story: 9 - Henrietta Smith describes her work for the public schools of Broward County, Florida</a>

<a href="">Tape: 3 Story: 10 - Henrietta Smith talks about her doctoral studies at the University of Miami in Coral Gables, Florida</a>

<a href="">Tape: 3 Story: 11 - Henrietta Smith remembers her tenure at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, Florida</a>

<a href="">Tape: 4 Story: 1 - Henrietta Smith describes working at University of South Florida</a>

<a href="">Tape: 4 Story: 2 - Henrietta Smith remembers E.J. Josey</a>

<a href="">Tape: 4 Story: 3 - Henrietta Smith recalls the creation of the Coretta Scott King Award</a>

<a href="">Tape: 4 Story: 4 - Henrietta Smith describes the John Steptoe New Talent Award</a>

<a href="">Tape: 4 Story: 5 - Henrietta Smith talks about the Coretta Scott King Awards Book</a>

<a href="">Tape: 4 Story: 6 - Henrietta Smith talks about illustrator Ashley Bryan</a>

<a href="">Tape: 4 Story: 7 - Henrietta Smith describes the African American Research Library and Cultural Center</a>

<a href="">Tape: 4 Story: 8 - Henrietta Smith remembers Doris Clark</a>

<a href="">Tape: 4 Story: 9 - Henrietta Smith remembers Lucille Thomas</a>

<a href="">Tape: 4 Story: 10 - Henrietta Smith remembers Charlemae Rollins</a>

<a href="">Tape: 4 Story: 11 - Henrietta Smith remembers Virginia Lacy Jones</a>

<a href="">Tape: 4 Story: 12 - Henrietta Smith remembers Effie Lee Morris</a>

<a href="">Tape: 4 Story: 13 - Henrietta Smith describes her involvement in Storytellers International</a>

<a href="">Tape: 4 Story: 14 - Henrietta Smith remembers telling stories with Blue Water</a>

<a href="">Tape: 4 Story: 15 - Henrietta Smith recalls the creation of the Pura Belpre Award</a>

<a href="">Tape: 5 Story: 1 - Henrietta Smith shares her philosophy of storytelling</a>

<a href="">Tape: 5 Story: 2 - Henrietta Smith talks about access to African American children's literature</a>

<a href="">Tape: 5 Story: 3 - Henrietta Smith describes her concerns for children's literature</a>

<a href="">Tape: 5 Story: 4 - Henrietta Smith shares her concerns for public libraries</a>

<a href="">Tape: 5 Story: 5 - Henrietta Smith talks about the Negro National Anthem</a>

<a href="">Tape: 5 Story: 6 - Henrietta Smith reflects upon her legacy</a>

<a href="">Tape: 5 Story: 7 - Henrietta Smith narrates her photographs, pt. 1</a>

<a href="">Tape: 5 Story: 8 - Henrietta Smith narrates her photographs, pt. 2</a>







Henrietta Smith recalls her storytelling lessons from Augusta Braxton Baker
Henrietta Smith shares her philosophy of storytelling
So let's talk a little, let's talk some more about Augusta Baker [Augusta Braxton Baker]. Do you--can you tell us, can you describe her for us and tell us maybe about some of your personal interactions with her?$$Okay, Augusta Baker, a tiny woman, but big. You know what I mean, big in what she could and as I told you she said, "You're gonna tell stories." Well they had told us that before but she really reinforced--"You're gonna tell--and remember when you're telling you are sharing this event and you are not the primary character therefore you dress down." "Do what?" "You dress down. You wear dark colors, no jewelry that jangles and you don't have a lot of stuff around you because you are just sharing an event." And then they would come around and you had to do a practice or practicum story while you know she's sitting there looking at you and you're saying okay am I doing this right? Am I gonna remember the events? And you're scared to death until she relax--you relax when you finish and she smiles at you and you know that you did okay. When I moved to Florida--moved--well, we're get to that more later, but when I moved to Florida I would come up in the summer, I was going back to Columbia [Columbia University, New York, New York] to get my master's in library science and I told Augusta I said, "I'm gonna be up for the summer, maybe I can do some part-time storytelling," and she would say, "I can give you ten hours a week if you do that much for me." And that's when I use to go down in the parks but remembering what she had taught you went out to the park. You might carry a book or two, but you really--she said your book is your Linus blanket. You're not reading to the children, you're telling them this story, and that what we really--I don't think the people much of that now. They use visuals and stuff like that but--$$So can you talk a little bit about that telling of a story? What's involved in telling a story versus reading a story?$$When you tell it, it you say, "This is the event at which I was present. And Adrienne [Adrienne Jones] for some reason you missed it but here's what happened," and then you tell this story, you tell the Anansi stories or you tell the Peter Rabbit story or you tell how the cat made the--got to make the sound that it does. The book may be over here, but you're telling and you know when you've done it okay because at one I have a favorite story and I tell 'The Cat's Purr' which was illustrated by Ashley Bryan, one of my favorite storytellers, and when I finished a little kid came up to me and she said, "You know what my cat didn't look like your cat." In her head she had a cat and, and that's, that's the thing that Augusta and all the early storytellers embedded in your head that you were going to tell so that your audience visualize in their own heads what was happening, and the pacing and the diction I mean they, they were strict on how you did it.$$So tell us a bit about that, what did Ms. Baker instruct you in terms of the framework of the nuts and bolts of telling a story?$$The first place you learn the story, you don't say, "Today I'm gonna tell 'The Cat's Purr,'" pick it up today and go tell it. You've read it and you've read it again and you read it again. You've told it in front of a mirror, you've told it on tape. You put the book way aside and then tell it again until it's down to where you want it to be. The pacing, the diction, the motion and she would say, "Now remember, motion is not--if you're running up a hill you don't run across the floor, you let them see you by your motion run up that hill. If you fall down, don't fall down because if you fall down you're gonna have trouble getting up." And she would you know give you those, those kind of things. You don't go in with any chewing gum in your mouth, she would just--and if you had long hair enough of these distractions or things you know getting your hair out--none of that. Every motion you make had to be important to that story or you don't make it, and every--even if you told the story yesterday you don't go tomorrow and tell it again without refreshing the story. It makes it look easy but it's because you worked--worked on it to get it done, and as I said she would pop up sometime and just be there when you were, when you telling just to make sure you were doing what, what should be done. We had a storytelling season that started, what is it, September and it went through the first Friday in May and then the first Friday in May all the storytellers got on the ferry boat and went over to Staten Island [New York] for the storytelling symposium and--each--the chosen storytellers would tell (laugher)--and Augusta said, "And they never let me be one of the chosen storytellers but when I became supervisor of children's work I became a storyteller and I told it." (Laughter) She was so funny, she was very, she was very interesting at that.$Is that the end of the story? Perez falls into the porridge?$$Well if you fall into a pot of hot porridge what?$$You're dead.$$You're dead. Well one of the things we have to help children learn is death is a part of life. I remember once when I was teaching at FAU [Florida Atlantic University, Boca Raton, Florida] I got a book on--it's called the 'Unbuilding' [David Macaulay] it's the story of the dismantling of the Empire State Building [New York, New York]. It's done by a very wonderful illustrator. So one of colleagues was teaching children's literature that night, and I gave him a copy of the book, I said, "Take this up to your class, it's a wonderful new book and maybe they wanna see it." He took it to his office and in about fifteen minutes he brought it back and he said, "I can't use this book." I said, "Why not?" He says, "It's doesn't have a happy ending, and I don't teach any literature that doesn't have a happy ending." That's not life, when you're working with children you have to give them life and death is a part of life, and it isn't only animals that die, and that's part of what I do. I do it with the teachers that I'm teaching and I do it with the children when I'm working with them and there's some wonderful stories that handle death beautifully for children.$$I saw a quote by you that indicated that you do not as a storyteller preach about the moral of the story or discuss that in anyway. You're simply laying the story out for the listener. Can you talk a little bit about that?$$People underestimate what children understand. You don't need to preach the moral, if the story ends with the moral and you say, "Well when you think about it the best way for this is sometimes is to say no to your very best friends," that's the end of the story. If they're following the story along, you don't need to tell them that. Now if I say to you today, "We're gonna analyze this story in terms of structure and vocabulary," you're going to listen a certain way. If I say to you, "Today is story hour day, we're just gonna share stories. That's what we came to do and you go home with whatever you go home with." With some it may be nothing, with some it's a lot. I remember once years ago I was in a restaurant and this waiter came up to me and said, "You told us stories when we were in elementary school." Here's this guy about six feet tall who remembered something that I told him, so you know you don't have to belabor children with what the moral is, that's, that's my belief anyway as a storyteller.