Vasco and Maxine Smith

Civil Rights

Dr. Vasco Smith and his wife, Maxine, shared a passion for civil rights and were determined to make changes in Memphis. Marrying in 1953, Vasco pressed for racial equality in voter registration, while Maxine organized initiatives for desegregation in the Memphis school system.

Vasco graduated from Memphis’ LeMoyne College, now LeMoyne-Owen College, in 1941 and received a dental degree from Meharry Medical College in Nashville in 1945, before becoming a civil rights activist and later a county commissioner in Memphis.

In 1962, Vasco persuaded the owner of downtown Memphis’ segregated Malco Theatre to integrate by selling tickets to African-Americans in the orchestra-level section of the theater, which had previously been limited to “whites only.”

Vasco became the first African-American to be elected to an at-large position on the Shelby County Quarterly Court in 1973 and was instrumental in founding the Memphis Regional Medical Center. He served on the court until retiring from politics in 1994. After his retirement, he remained active in politics and civil rights, and served on the board of the Memphis NAACP chapter until his death in 2009.

Maxine was instrumental in the desegregation of Memphis public schools in the 1960s, fighting for civil rights and school desegregation by organizing lawsuits, sit-ins and marches, including the “Black Monday” student boycotts from 1969 to 1972. She also served on the committee for the 1968 Memphis sanitation workers’ strike that brought Martin Luther King Jr. to Memphis prior to his assassination.

In 1971, Maxine was elected to the Memphis Board of Education, serving until she retired in 1995. She was influential in securing W.W. Herenton’s election as the first African-American school superintendent in Memphis in 1978, which launched his political career. She was later elected president of the Memphis Board of Education in 1991, the same year Herenton became the first African-American mayor of Memphis.

She received more than 160 awards, including the National NAACP Leadership Award, for her civil rights and educational equality efforts. In 2003, Maxine was awarded the prestigious Freedom Award by the National Civil Rights Museum for her outstanding contributions to civil and human rights. One of the most recognized civil rights activist in Memphis, Maxine passed away in April 2013 at the age of 83.