Remembering life and legacy of Greenville judge who inspired change in SC

Published: Feb. 23, 2023 at 6:28 AM EST
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GREENVILLE, S.C. (FOX Carolina) - We’re remembering the life of an Upstate judge who inspired change in South Carolina.

After becoming an attorney in the 1950s, Willie T. Smith Jr. went on to become the first Black judge in Greenville.

He passed away two decades ago, but his impact on the state lives on.

“He just wanted to help the little man and he did that,” Judge Smith’s wife of 47 years, Anna Smith, said.

He represented the unheard voices by tackling civil rights issues and taking on landmark cases.

“Seeing the needs of people that could not afford lawyers,” Anna Smith said, “He wanted to make sure that he could make a change and help those people that didn’t have finances.”

Judge Smith broke racial barriers at county schools, colleges, and lunch counters.

“So many cases just came to him and he was never afraid to take them on,” Smith’s son, Willie T. Smith, III, said.

Seeking justice when many stayed silent, he fought to end segregation, and won.

He took on AJ Whittenberg’s milestone case in 1963, which led to the integration of Greenville County Schools.

His wife said it was his proudest professional achievement.

“I think the Wittenberg case is the one that he cherished most.”

Smith also played a major role in Greenville’s lunch counter sit-ins in 1960, helping push the case to the Supreme Court. The case ultimately ended segregation at Greenville restaurants, hotels and movie theaters.

Despite his long list of accomplishments, his son said he did not do it for the recognition.

“He was not one of those pat myself on the back kind of guys. He almost seemed a little bit embarrassed when people wanted to honor him”

Smith’s legacy still lives on through the people helped.

“The thing he enjoyed most was signing adoption papers. Of all the things that he had to do as a family court judge, that brought him the most happiness,” Smith’s son, Willie, said.