On June 9, 2014, we conducted an interview with Robert Smith at the Oliver Nestus Freeman Roundhouse of African American History in Wilson, North Carolina, as part of the East Wilson Oral History Project. Smith was born in the mid-1930s and raised in East Wilson by his grandparents. While growing up he worked many different jobs, including at a neighborhood grocery store and at Darden Funeral Home. His youth was also spent in the church, where he attended St. Mark’s Episcopal Church. He told us that growing up in the East Wilson neighborhood kept him grounded, but it would not be until he was in the Army that he came into his own.
After graduating from Darden High School in 1962, Smith joined the U.S. Army, where he would spend the next twenty years of his life. Upon graduating from Supply Corps school, he was sent to Germany, where he worked in Supply for a few years before moving over to the Chaplain Service. There he met a chaplain who helped to give Smith a sense of direction in his life, and he never forgot it. He served three tours of duty in Vietnam, where he earned a Bronze Star for service as a military advisor in the U.S. pacification program in South Vietnam. During the interview it was obvious that his service in Vietnam still greatly affects him to this day. He told us that he suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and the deaths of many people that he knew and the occasions that he cheated death continue to haunt him.
While serving in the Army, Smith earned numerous degrees, including criminal justice. Upon retiring from the Army, he began a career in teaching at numerous institutions, including Wayne Community College and Shaw University. In 1985 he was tapped to be a magistrate judge for Wilson County, a post that he remained in until a few years ago. He remains active in his retirement years, serving on numerous boards and associations in community action and education, helping to build bridges in the community and to find common ground between others.
The interview with Robert Smith went in a completely different direction than the others that we have conducted for this project. Instead of getting a look at Wilson over the years, we got the story of a man whose life was shaped by events in his adult years. What we gained from this interview was not a look at how living in a segregated society shaped a man. Instead, we saw how war shaped everything a man has done in his adult life, and that although the Vietnam War ended well over forty years ago, the events of that experience are still fresh in his mind.