In 1963, the same year that John F. Kennedy got shot, David Smith was 19 years old and playing for the first baseball team at Gibbs Junior College in St. Petersburg. At the time, schools had yet to be integrated and the school was an all-black campus. Forty-eight years later, in 2011, Smith received a letter informing him that he had been inducted into the Hall of Fame of Gibbs Junior College, which is now St. Petersburg Community College.
Smith, who has lived in Lake Wales his entire life, worked as a deputy sheriff with the Polk County Sheriff’s Office until 2002 when he retired. He now serves as the president of the N.A.A.C.P. in Lake Wales. When Smith received the letter informing him he was inducted into the Hall of Fame, he was surprised and did not even tell his wife and children at first. “I didn’t want to make a big deal out of it because I didn’t know what was going on,” said Smith.
“I still didn’t register [what was happening] because we’re talking 50 years later,” said Smith. A lot had changed for Smith since his time playing college baseball. Smith describes the field his team played on as a “sandbox.”
“You might break your ankle running around the bases, it was uneven. Nowadays everything is smooth and even, but then you might step in a hole or something. You better watch where you were going,” laughs Smith.
When Smith was attending college, he worked at a funeral home and received room and board in exchange for his work. “My room and board was at the funeral home,” said Smith. Segregation was still in full effect while Smith was a student at Gibbs. It was typical to receive old textbooks that the white schools could no longer use. “A chapter might be missing. I’m serious. That’s the way it was,” said Smith.
Smith remembers segregation being a big part of growing up in Lake Wales as well. “In any town you go to you have a railroad track and you always use one side for the black and one side for the white — same thing for Lake Wales,” said Smith. Smith remembers going to a movie theater intended only for white people and then coming out to people throwing bricks and stones at them. “We were trying to say, ‘look we have the right to be here too’,” said Smith.
At the induction to the Hall of Fame ceremony on June 20, 2011, the speaker, Dr. Paul Mohr, a former professor at FSU, reminded the crowd of how much times have changed since the first baseball team competed for Gibbs. Like many black schools, Gibbs was joined together with St. Petersburg College. “Since that time, the powers to be have been trying to get together to do what they could for the black schools because most black schools had lost their identity,” said Gibbs. Now Gibbs Junior College has its own Hall of Fame located in St. Petersburg College. “We were the first team they ever had at the college so we really made history at the school in order to become a part of the Hall of Fame,” said Smith.