Bernice S. Smith
Civil Rights

Bernice was born in Benton, Louisiana, to Martin Smith and Blanche Thorpe Smith. In all, her parents had 13 children. Mr. Smith was a sharecropper on a small farm, where the family raised its own vegetables. Bernice attended Bossier Parish Training School, walking two miles to and from school, as white children on school buses passed them. "We were very poor but at that time you didn't know you were poor because everybody around you was in the same shape," she recalls. Bernice picked and chopped cotton to help her parents buy her school clothes. She also milked cows and churned butter. Of the family's three-room home, she says, "I think two or three of us slept in a bed. We had a fire place and Mama made our quilts. We were comfortable and we had plenty of food. We were never hungry." She recalls roasting peanuts and potatoes in the ashes in the fireplace. She came to Shreveport soon after finishing high school in June of 1945. She worked at Line Avenue Sunlight Cleaners. She finished Magnetic Beauty School and went to work at Modern Beauty Shoppe in 1957, a business she owns today. During the civil rights movement in the 1960s, the police "kept you at bay from doing a lot of things," she says. "They'd follow you home if they thought you were in some type of activity." Frightened for the safety of her daughter, Brenda, at integrated Byrd High School, she hired a Mr. Holden to take her and pick her up every day. Her daughter, Rene, was one of six African-American children to "crossover" to Broadmoor Junior High School in 1967. She was attending one civil rights meeting when someone threw a bomb through the window. No one was hurt. She met Dr. Martin Luther, King, Jr. when he came to Galilee Baptist Church to a banquet. "He was very eloquent in his speech," she recalls. "He wasn't the type of person that would put on any airs. He just spoke very quietly and said what he had to say," she says. His support wasn't universal in the black community, she recalls. Many black ministers "were fighting him," she says. She believes they thought "he was a trouble maker stirring up trouble." Her beauty shop became a haven "for every freedom rider that ever came to town," she says. She also opened it to serve refreshments to those picketing Stan's Record Shop in an effort for that downtown business, as well as others, to hire minority workers. Mrs. Smith has three children, eight grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren.