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Pacific Southwest, Region 9

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Pre-Civil-Rights Worker Celebrates Six Decades of Public Service

Federal employees are eligible to retire with benefits after 30 years of service. But May Smith in the Water Division has more than doubled that, and is still going strong. “And I’ve enjoyed every moment of it,” she says. “I’d like to continue working and making a contribution. I’ll stop when my body tells me it’s time to stop.”

May was born in the small town of Corsicana, Texas, and lived there until age 11. “There were oil wells all around, even an oil spot in the back yard, but we never got any oil money,” she recalls. At 11, she moved with her grandmother to San Antonio, and at 17 was valedictorian of the 1944 graduating class at Phyllis Wheatley High School.

May Smith Graduation Photo

May's high school graduation photo, 1944.

There, her business class teacher, a woman from Boston named Jimmye D. Richardson, “took an interest” in students who were qualified for college but didn’t have the money, and encouraged them to take the Civil Service exam. If they did well, she lined up jobs for them. May took the test and got an outstanding 98.5%. Richardson told May to report to Kelly Air Force Base on a certain date in September 1944 to start as a clerk-typist.

For high school graduates, May says, “a clerical job with the federal government was considered really top-notch.” She would have preferred going to college, but she was happy to get the office job. On the first day, an Air Force officer assigned her to an office that processed manifests for rail shipments and travel to and from the base. When she got there, however, she was told there was no job for her. All but three of the staff of 25 people were white. The exceptions were a woman janitor, who was African-American, like May, and two Hispanic women. The janitor welcomed May warmly, but everyone else stared at her “like I was from Mars,” she recalls.

May Smith at HUD

May Smith as a Supervisor in San Francisco's
HUD office in 1982.

May returned to the officer and told him what had happened. He recognized a case of racial discrimination, and marched with her back to the office, ordering the people there to give her a desk, a typewriter, and a work assignment by the following Monday. So she started work, and a week later, the officer stopped by and asked how she was doing. “Fine,” May replied. “You’re doing more than fine, you’re one of the top clerical people here,” he said. “I want you to train seven servicemen who are coming to work in your unit.”

Soon, May was supervising seven servicemen and four women. After four months, the officer stopped by with his superiors, a Captain Condit and a general, and gave May a promotion. She appreciated that, but still wanted to go to college. After a year, she switched to working nights and weekends and taking college classes on weekdays. But the physical strain was too much. She had to quit college.

May Smith on Field Trip

May on a Wetlands Section vernal
pool field trip, c. 1996.

Racism again came up when Captain Condit was transferred, and he invited May to his going-away party. Her friend the janitor advised her to refuse the invitation, because “blacks and whites just don’t mix here in Texas.” But the Captain wouldn’t take no for an answer. When he heard why, he changed the party venue to his office, where she could not be excluded.

May with her granddaughter

May with her granddaughter
Mia Smith, 2004.

Meanwhile, May’s brother and sister had moved to the Bay Area. She came here to visit them in 1949 and decided to stay. She moved into the neighborhood just outside the gate of the Hunters Point Naval Shipyard. Her first job was with the U.S. Marine Corps, which then had an office at 100 Harrison Street in San Francisco. But the following year, when the Marines moved to Barstow in the Southern California desert, May looked for work at other federal offices in San Francisco, and landed at the federal housing agency, predecessor of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

For the first several years, May was the only African-American in an office of about 30 people, and she supervised 11 of them. At the beginning, one of her colleagues, not her supervisor, insisted on checking her work for mistakes. After three months without finding any, the busybody stopped, admitting, “You’re an excellent administrator and HQ says our documents are the best in the nation.” May never objected to the checking, but she knew why the person was doing it: “Flawless work wasn’t what they expected from black people,” she recalls.

May stayed at HUD for 41 years, including five as a Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity officer. She won many awards from HUD and raised her five children. When they were grown, she finally went back to college, getting her Bachelor’s Degree in 1979 and her Master’s in Public Administration in 1982, both from the University of San Francisco. Her award-winning thesis, titled “A Profile On Minority Women Professionals in the Federal Government,” identified barriers to their advancement, and made recommendations to remove them.

May's thesis was used by Equal Employment Opportunity officers and advocates both inside and outside government. During her long career at HUD, May was the driving force behind a number of innovative policies that were ultimately adopted by HUD and in some cases all federal agencies nationwide, including:

May Smith on Field Trip

May Smith

  • A computerized travel advance system for HUD employees
  • A system to speed processing of HUD payments to landlords during disasters, eliminating most of the typing needed earlier
  • Allowing use of federal funds for travel club membership to get discounts on federal travel
  • Relocation allowances for dependent elderly parents of federal employees
  • Allowing Administrative Leave for jet lag after a full day's travel or crossing the International Date Line

In 1985, May was chosen for HUD's first Distinguished Woman of the Year Award. The following year, she was nominated for the Women's Hall of Fame of San Mateo County. May retired from HUD in 1986 with 41 years and nine months of federal service, having worked her way up from GS-2 to GS-13. By this time, she had joined the Board of the Bay Area Urban League, where she worked as a volunteer for seven years, helping financially struggling homeowners avoid foreclosure.

In 1988, she started a new career as a SEE (Senior Environmental Employment) grantee in the Water Division’s Wetlands Section, working as administrative assistant and doing wetlands educational outreach. She’s been there more than 20 years, outlasting four supervisors, for a grand total of more than 61 years with the federal government. “I knew nothing about the environment when I came here,” she says. “I have learned a lot, still learning, growing, and using my creativity. Throughout my career I've always remembered one thing: The only place you'll find success before work is in the dictionary.” In 2008, the American Biographical Institute gave May their Lifetime Achievement Award "For continued performance and great achievements in Public Administration."

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