Local Obituaries

First black police officer in Miami Beach, James Smith, dies at 87

Maj. James Smith was a Miami Beach police officer from 1964 to 1990. He was the department’s first black officer.
Maj. James Smith was a Miami Beach police officer from 1964 to 1990. He was the department’s first black officer. Miami Herald file

When your father is a police major, discipline at home is a given. When your father is the first black police officer in Miami Beach, and the gravity of that cultural significance looms large, you really fall in line.

Well, most of the time.

“He was to me, my all,” said Rodney Smith, son of police Maj. James W. Smith, who died at 87 on Jan. 31 at his Liberty City home of 57 years.

“There has never been a time that I needed him that he wasn’t there,” his son said. “Anybody can raise a good child but I hadn’t always been that. And he would never condone my wrongdoing. He taught me, ‘What you reap you will sow.’ And ‘God is going take care of you in the end but in the meantime I’m going to take care.’”

Smith learned. “I grew up just wanting to be a good husband and a father because that’s all I ever knew.”

Maj. Smith was born Nov. 12, 1929, in Starke, a North Florida prison town. He played semi-professional baseball for a Brooklyn Dodgers affiliate, delivered furniture and worked as a guard at the Miami stockade before becoming a Beach officer in 1964.

When Smith first walked into the old Beach police station at 120 Meridian Ave., he saw two water fountains, one for blacks, one for whites.

“I observed — and didn’t say anything,” Smith told the Miami Herald in 1990 upon his retirement from the force after 26 years. When he returned from police academy training, the fountain signs were gone.

Smith, then 34 and already one of the Beach’s oldest rookies, earned respect immediately.

I learned if it’s not yours, don’t bother with it. If it’s yours, share it. That’s how I grew up and I had that kind of father and I knew when I went astray I could come back home.

Rodney Smith on his father, Maj. James Smith.

“Right from the beginning,” his first partner, Capt. Don Hasley, told the Herald in 1990. “I was as proud as he was when he made major.” Smith was promoted to sergeant in 1971, became a lieutenant in 1975 and went from captain in 1988 to major in 1989.

Fellow officers recalled when a young defense attorney represented a black burglar whom Smith had arrested. One by one, the attorney called detectives to the stand, alleging racial bias. Smith was last to testify.

He quietly rose from the back row and walked down the aisle, wearing a poker face. The court went into pandemonium, the Herald reported. Nearly everyone, except the attorney, broke into laughter — the police, spectators. Even the judge cracked a smile as he banged his gavel. The perp got five years.

“I was given an opportunity to succeed if I wanted to take advantage of it,” Smith said at his retirement. “It was an interesting job, a challenging job.”

I had an opportunity to display the fact that I could be patient and see things from other people’s point of view.

Maj. James Smith on his 1990 retirement from the Miami Beach police department.

His son, Rodney, a youth motivational speaker, said his parents — who were wed 60 years until the death of his mother, Earnestine, a day before Thanksgiving 2016 — introduced the children to the arts. The family saw the Alvin Ailey dancers. Comedians Red Skelton and Jackie Gleason.

“I remember he and mom got me tickets to see Barbra Streisand’s opening [at Miami Beach’s Eden Roc in March 1963] and that was beautiful to me. That helped change some of my life. I’m a choir director now at First Baptist Church of Brownsville. I was 3. Who is this woman that could command so much attention? That was crazy. I was here living in the inner city and that was a whole other world. He made sure … we got a chance to be cultured. To see him get up every morning and never come home complaining —he’d spend the time, he wanted to be with us. This is why all my friends wanted to be over here as I grew up.”

Smith also is survived by his son Glenn Smith and grandchildren Stanley, Rodney Jr. and Ciera Smith. Services will be at 11 a.m. Saturday at First Baptist Church of Brownsville, 4600 NW 23rd Ave.

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