Keeping It All in the Family

She didn't know where she’d go to college. But there’s one thing Janay Marriel Smith (B.S.M.E. ’94) knew for sure.

It would be one of the nation’s historically Black colleges and universities.

Smith grew up in a family whose roots in HBCUs run deep and wide. Her family has a longstanding commitment to historically Black colleges and universities and the legacy of scholarship and service instilled in their students.

She’s the third generation of her family to earn a college education at an HBCU.

That family tradition began with her maternal grandparents, Marion David Smiley and Gloria Marie Lyman.

Smiley attended Tuskegee Institute, earned an undergraduate degree from Alabama State and a master’s of education degree in 1962 from Alabama A&M in Huntsville.

Lyman graduated from Xavier University in New Orleans.

The HBCU tradition continued with Smith’s parents.

Her mother, Thelma Yvette Smiley, graduated with honors with a degree in accounting from the then-Hampton Institute (now Hampton University) in 1970. Yvette Smiley-Smith—as most people came to know her— established her own barrier-breaking accounting firm and was an ardent consumer and civil rights advocate.

Smith’s father was the late legendary litigator Jock Michael Smith. He graduated from Tuskegee Institute in 1970 and went on to become one of the nation’s leading civil rights attorneys. He earned his law degree from the University of Notre Dame, where he was a founding member of the Black Law Students Association.

Though he lived in Montgomery, Alabama, Jock Michael Smith, kept his law practice near his beloved Tuskegee, Alabama. It was from that Tuskegee office that he earned a national reputation as a top-notch attorney. Among many of his multimillion-dollar victories was an $80 million verdict in 2000 against a company for defrauding an elderly Black woman. Four years later, he won a landmark $1.62 billion against Southwestern Life Insurance Company.

Jock Smith also amassed a sports memorabilia collection so phenomenal that items from it form the nucleus of the sports gallery in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.

The family’s allegiance to HBCUs goes even deeper in Alabama’s rich, dark soil. Janay Smith’s family has reigned at the helm of Trenholm State Community College, formerly Trenholm State Technical College, in Montgomery almost continuously since its doors opened in 1966. Her great-uncle Lucious Smiley was its first president. Her grandfather, Marion David Smiley, served as president from 1970 to 1981, and the current president, Samuel Munnerlyn, is her uncle.

Another branch of the family tree also is rooted in HBCUs. A cousin she grew up with, Edmond Michael Franklin (D.D.S. ’08), a dentist in Atlanta, graduated with a bachelor’s in finance from Morehouse in 1993. He later earned his dental degree from Howard University School of Medicine. Both of his parents are Xavier graduates, who met while attending that university in the 1960s.

‘Howard Chose Me’

It’s against that backdrop that the 18-year-old version of Janay Marriel Smith, an only child raised in a support circle of high-achieving scholars, started looking for colleges.

Three criteria guided her selection.

No. 1, it had to be an HBCU. She had grown up hearing about the scholarship, service and commitment to making a better, more just world that HBCUs drill into their students. Plus, she’d heard plenty about the big fun and life-long connections that spring from HBCU campuses.Janay Marriel Smith and her parents Yvette and Jock

“Growing up, all my life, both my parents always went back to their universities for homecoming,” she recalled. “And they’ve always been activists for what’s right. I just felt like those kind of people exist more at HBCUs.”

No. 2, it had to have an accredited mechanical engineering program.

No. 3, it had to be far enough from Montgomery, Alabama that neither her parents—nor any other doting relative— could easily drop in on her.

“I knew that if I stayed in Alabama, I’d never grow up,” she said. “They’d bring me food and do my laundry.”

The second she stepped out of a cab onto Howard’s bustling campus in 1989, she knew it was where she’d go to college.

“I literally felt a spirit energy pass through my body. The Bison air filled my lungs,” Smith recalled. “Before I’d talked to a single student or faculty member—I hadn’t even paid the cab driver—I said, ‘I’m going here. It was as if Howard chose me; I didn’t choose it.”

Howard University proved to be the right choice.

From Product Design to Law to Comedy to Sports Memorabilia

Her bachelor of science degree in mechanical engineering launched a career that has taken her to countries around the world and provided the foundation to earn a master’s degree in product design from Stanford University in California and eventually, a law degree from Cumberland Law School at Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama, in 2007.

Smith is now based in Atlanta, handling various roles, including fulfilling a longtime fun dream to work as a comedienne— J Smiles is her stage name—and managing her father’s world-class sports memorabilia collection.

Pieces from Jock Smith’s memorabilia collection featured in the National Museum of African American Culture and History’s football display

It includes the nation’s largest authenticated, privately owned collection of game-worn uniforms in the United States. The Smithsonian has 44 pieces from the 10,000-plus collection. Among them are the track cleats Jesse Owens wore in the 1936 

Olympic Games in Berlin, autographed Joe Louis gloves, a Jackie Robinson jersey and bat and one of Serena Williams’ fashionable outfits.

Pieces from the collection also fueled an interactive sports exhibit center started by her father and other partners in Las Vegas. She helped run it after his 2012 passing, until the exhibit closed in 2015.

Jock Smith’s collection began as a hobby started after his wife bought him a gift from a hobby store that she knew he’d appreciate: a miniature bronze replica of Hank Aaron.

“My father went bananas,” Janay Smith recalled. “My dad loved sports. He believed that sports was a great change agent in America. Sports changed minds before legislation. Brown vs. Board of Education was decided seven or eight years after Jackie Robinson broke the color line. The chances of a little Black boy and a little White boy becoming friends are greater if you put them on the field in the same uniform.”

After his father’s death, teachers didn’t expect Jock Smith, Black boy whose attorney father died when he was 8, to amount to much. He determined he would be a success, and Tuskegee Institute laid the groundwork. He went on to teach there and served on its board of trustees, in addition to running his law practice from offices nearby, while maintaining his home in Montgomery.

Jock Smith’s memorabilia in the National Museum of African American History and Culture tells his story as well as the story of the items he collected.

In 2016, Jock’s wife, Yvette, and daughter, Janay, donated his law building—a stately antebellum-era mansion on the National Historic Register—to Tuskegee University. The university plans to use it as a development office and alumni center that showcases what a proud alumnus can accomplish, his daughter said.

HBCU Success

Janay Smith credits her own multifaceted success to the nurturing, encouragement, networking and knowledge she gained at Howard, not just from its esteemed faculty, but from the relationships developed with students as well.

“I made lifelong friends on Howard’s yard,” she said. “Being broke was never fun, but there were times we were all broke. We’d find a way to pool our money and buy enough chicken wings to feed all of us.”

Her Howard experience interacting with students from all over the country and the world propelled her to take advantage of overseas opportunities when she worked in corporate America.Janay Marriel Smith (B.S.M.E. ’94) made a generous personal gift of $150,000 to the College of Engineering and Architecture during the University’s 2017 Charter Day Weekend. The $150,000 gift was given in the spirit of Howard’s 150th Anniversary.

“Going to Howard, you have experiences with students from other countries on a very personal level,” she said. “It’s like you become one family. I was in class with the children of kings in Africa and other students who’d fled persecution because of civil wars in their countries. There were people who had been sleeping in dirt ditches and two months later, we were in English class together. You learn first-hand about other cultures and how the U.S. is perceived by other countries. You learn that there are places that might not have things we take for granted, like gasoline or even food because the infrastructure is so bad there’s no way to get it to the people who need it.”

There’s also a bond that develops between students and faculty that’s less likely to happen on a large, impersonal campus, she said.

Her affection for Howard goes beyond the students and faculty she met in classrooms.

While encouraging individuality, Howard further instilled principles she’d first learned at home: the importance of service to mankind and doing whatever one could to make life better for everyone.

She took those principles to heart, and they thrust her into leadership positions on campus, including freshman class president, president of the School of Engineering Student Council as well as active participation in the national organizations for Black engineers and women engineers.

She also was a board member of a student group called the Cultural Imitative that planned and presented national hip-hop conferences annually for five years beginning in 1991. They attracted musicians, writers, rappers, promoters, music educators and others to Howard’s campus, including Sean “Puffy” Combs who, along with other artists, became a regular presence on the campus.

“What makes students think they can put together a hip-hop conference that will attract artists and executives from all over the country?’’ she asked. “Howard! We did it, and we still went to class.”

HBCU Racial Pride Instilled

Her cousin, Dr. Edmond Michael Franklin, offered another reason for the family’s affection for HBCUs: the racial pride they instill.

“You don’t know the breadth and scope of what we’ve accomplished as a people until you’re immersed in an HBCU,” Franklin said. “We need to know, especially in this day and age, the things Black people have done that have made this society and the world a better place.”

The Smiths and Franklins also are members of Black Greek life, which is very much a part of HBCU history and culture.

Both Frankin and his father, Edmond Franklin, a pharmacist, are members of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity Inc. His mother, Carletté Lee Franklin, a retired medical technologist, is a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, as is Edmond Michael Franklin’s wife, Vivian Howard Franklin, who attended Florida A&M University in Tallahassee.

Janay Smith’s dad also was a member of Alpha Phi Alpha. She and her mother, Yvette Smiley-Smith, are both members of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Inc., which was founded on Howard’s campus in 1913.

Pledging Delta at the University where it was founded gave its principles of scholarship, service and sisterhood special meaning to her, Janay Smith said.

“Being a Delta at Alpha Chapter was a huge honor and a major responsibility for carrying on the mission of the sorority’s founders,” she said. “There were all these fantastic women who came before us. There was a strong urge to rise to the call of being a Delta woman.”

That meant being actively involved in community service on campus and off campus and being leaders in other organizations, all while maintaining high GPAs.

“Delta at Howard helped me manage my time, my mind, my energy and my direction,” she said. “We’re taught that you’re supposed to effect positive change. We’re taught that there are no excuses; do the work.”

That no-excuses, find-a-way, can-do, will-do attitude was reinforced throughout her Howard experience and serves her still, she said.

“I always say, I was reared in Montgomery, but I became an adult at Howard University,” Smith said. “I don’t know who or where I’d be without Howard.”

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