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The Aegis
Harford County

Robert Smith, Harford's first black corrections officer, tells his story

More than 50 years ago, Robert "Smitty" Smith, of Darlington, became the first African-American employee of the Harford County Sheriff's Office.

Smith, 78, retired as a captain in 1995 after a more than 30-year career in corrections, and he maintains close relationships with some of the top law enforcement officials he served under.

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In the ground-breaking civil rights era, former Sheriff Bill Kunkel, who was appointed sheriff in April 1963, hired Smith in June 1964. Kunkel, who started as a deputy in 1953 and was the chief deputy when he was appointed sheriff, was one of 19 sheriff's office employees when he took on the top spot.

"That kept us scrambling to do everything," Kunkel, who served as sheriff until 1981, recalled.

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He said there was no push from the county government or the community for the sheriff's office to hire a black employee.

"There was no push at that time," Kunkel said. "I had a recommendation from a couple people, and I followed up on checking some of them out, and I hired Smitty."

February is Black History Month and Smith is one of those who not only broke one of Harford County's racial barriers, he did it successfully.

Kunkel, who lives in Abingdon, called Smith "an outstanding person and officer and a gentleman."

The Harford County jail was part of the sheriff's office facility on Main Street in downtown Bel Air when Smith started in the 1960s. Former Sheriff Jesse Bane, who met Smith at a roll call when he started working for the sheriff's office in 1972, said the Main Street jail had a capacity of 40 to 50 inmates.

The present-day Harford County Detention Center, on Rock Spring Road just north of Bel Air, opened in 1973. The facility has been expanded several times since it opened, and it had a capacity of 782 inmates when Bane left office in December. There were also about 590 employees.

Smith was a shift supervisor at the Main Street jail when Bane started.

"They don't come any better than Smitty," Bane said.

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He described Smith as a "very pleasant, quiet, reserved gentleman."

"He was very fair," Bane recalled. "He treated everyone with respect, but he was very firm, and I can't tell you of a single enemy that he had. He was well-liked by everybody, including the inmates."

Bane, a Democrat, served two terms as sheriff from 2006 to 2014; he was defeated in his bid for a third term last year by Republican nominee Jeff Gahler, who was inaugurated in December.

Bane, who lives in Fallston, was recently appointed Bel Air's town administrator.

Smith grew up in Darlington as one of 10 children. He was 28 years old when he was hired as a corrections officer.

The son of a carpenter and a homemaker, Smith attended segregated schools, graduating from Central Consolidated High School – now the site of Hickory Elementary School – in 1954.

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He then spent 10 years working various jobs, including two years with a concrete company hired to make repairs to the Conowingo Dam.

He was drafted into the Army in 1959, and he served on active duty until 1961. Before and after his time with the Army, he worked at cemeteries in Harford and Baltimore counties, including Bel Air Memorial Gardens, doing "everything" that needed to be done at a cemetery.

"One evening, I got home from work, and my brother said, 'The sheriff wants to see you,' " Smith recalled.

He thought he had done something wrong at first, but it turned out that Kunkel wanted to talk to him about a job. Smith noted his brother had been approached first about working for the sheriff's office, but he declined.

"It was cordial," Smith said of his interview with Kunkel. "It was like we knew each other. He was just very nice, everything went fine."

Smith started working on the jail's 1 a.m. to 9 a.m. shift. He and his fellow guards were responsible for receiving inmates, booking and strip searching them, then putting them in their cells.

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Smith said he did not have any issues with his fellow corrections officers, but he would occasionally get back talk from inmates.

"Some of them get a little sassy or whatever, but I went home every evening," he said.

Smith and his wife, Betsy, were married in June 1962. He was a corrections sergeant and a shift supervisor by 1973, when the Rock Spring Road detention center opened.

Smith was still on the graveyard shift, but he worked from midnight to 8 a.m. He went on vacation shortly after the detention center opened, and he came back to a very nice surprise.

"When I came back, I was told I'd be on the day shift," he said.

Smith started working from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. each day, a shift he calls "more civilized."

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Smith said he would get back talk, and even racial remarks from some inmates when they came to the jail, but he was able to get the upper hand, sometimes with the help of other inmates.

"I'd say, '[If] you keep on, you're going to have these people sitting around doing nothing,' " he remembers telling one rowdy inmate. "They're going to lose their TV privileges, their radio privileges, their phone privileges, if you don't knock it off.' "

Smith, who had been promoted to captain by that time, said the other inmates crowded around after he left and told the troublemaker that "if you want to get anything done, you talk to the captain like you've got good sense."

"I just said it so they would hear it," Smith recalled. "I knew they would straighten him out."

He took on a part-time job with the Harford County school system in 1968, providing evening security at the school system headquarters, which was on East Gordon Street in Bel Air, and later at the Forest Hill Distribution Center.

"I just take care of the building in the evenings after everybody's gone," Smith said.

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Smith retired from the sheriff's office Jan. 31, 1995, and he still works for the school system four evenings a week, providing security at the facility, which serves as a distribution and storage hub for the school system's food and materials.

"They asked me if I would take it and I said, 'Yes, I'll take it,' and I've been up there ever since," Smith explained.

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The sheriff's office has hired more black deputies and corrections officers since Smith started 50 years ago, and Bane said the representation of African-Americans in the agency "is fairly representative overall" of the county's population.

Harford County's population of 249,215 was 13.2 percent African-American as of 2013, according to Census data.

Smith is also long-serving trustee at St. James UAME Church in Darlington. He and Betsy have been married for 52 years. They have a son, Craig, who is an Army veteran and lives in Harrisburg, Pa. Their daughter, Carla, lives in Baltimore County and works for the Maryland Division of Parole and Probation.

They also have three grandchildren.

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Bane said he has remained friends with Smith and his family, and he has occasionally attended their church.

He describes Smith as "a very hard-working man," as well as "very quiet but very effective."

"He's a deeply religious man and someone who I respect very much," Bane said.


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