Nate Smith Biography
Fought His Way into the Union, Bulldozed Path for Blacks in Construction
From lying in order to enter the navy at the age of 12 to boxing his way into the union at 16, Nate Smith proved that he knew how to get what he wanted. What he wanted in the mid-1960s was to break the color barriers in the construction industry in Pittsburgh. To do so, he laid down in front of bulldozers to stop work at construction sites. He also formed an innovative training program that was emulated nationwide. For his efforts he received death threats and beatings. But he got what he wanted. Not only in Pittsburgh, but across the country, construction unions opened up to blacks. Smith told Contemporary Black Biography (CBB) that he estimated that he helped some 2,000 people get union cards over the years. The New Pittsburgh Courier placed that number closer to 17,000. No matter the final figure, Smith's legacy lives on daily in the black workers who now have steady work at solid union wages. "He is why I'm here," a 21-year old African-American union worker told the New Pittsburgh Courier in 2004. "I'm not here because of what I did. I'm here because of what Nate did."
Fought His Way into the Union
Nate Smith was born on February 23, 1929, and raised in the predominantly black Hill District of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. After seventh grade, Smith ran away to the navy. "I always liked the song, "Anchors Away" and I was downtown one day and I heard the song playing. I was near the recruiting office, so I went in," Smith told CBB. The next day he was off to boot camp and soon on a ship to Europe. "I was 12 years old, but I looked much older," he told CBB. It took the navy two years to figure out Smith's real age. By that time he had learned the skill that would change his life—heavy equipment operation.
At 14 Smith was back in Pittsburgh. Instead of returning to school, he decided to become a boxer. "I was boxing on the ship when I was overseas in the navy and I liked it," he told CBB. He began training at a local gym as a middleweight fighter. He was good and personable and soon developed a fan base in the city, including a prominent Pittsburgh millionaire. "One day I was walking downtown … and I ran into this man," Smith told CBB. "He said, 'You're Nate Smith.' I said, 'Yeah, who are you?' It turned out he was Edgar Kaufmann. He owned Kaufmann department stores and he had seen me box." Kaufmann offered to sponsor Smith. "He paid for my training and accompanied me on out of town fights." Eventually the two became like family. "[Kaufmann] used to introduce me to people as his adopted son," Smith told CBB.
Two years and over 100 professional fights into his boxing career, Smith had to quit. "I was doing pretty good, but I left because my body just couldn't take the blows," Smith told CBB. "I was only 16 and the doctor said my body hadn't settled enough." Smith decided to take advantage of his navy training and get a union job as a heavy equipment operator. However he was too young, too inexperienced, and too black for the 1940s union. The civil rights movement was still a few years off, and affirmative action not yet imagined. Only the lowest-paying, most menial of construction jobs were open to African Americans. That fact did not stop Smith.
Bulldozed Path for Blacks in
"The union guys used to go to the fights all the time, so I knew who they were," Smith told CBB. "I went to the union office and gave the guys four tickets [to a championship match] in exchange for my union card." Smith became a heavy equipment operator for Local 66 of the Operating Engineers' Union. "I loved operating bulldozers, cranes, all kinds of equipment," he told CBB. He was also good at his job, surprising his bosses. "Those two union officials, they thought I wouldn't keep it up, but I proved them wrong," Smith told the New Pittsburgh Courier.
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Smith became involved in the civil rights movement. "I went with Jesse Jackson, and we marched all over Atlanta, and then we came to Pittsburgh and marched some more," Smith recalled to CBB. As Smith got involved in the national campaign for civil rights, he realized that closer to home there was serious work to be done. Though Smith had gotten past the color barrier in the Pittsburgh unions, he had not broken it. "I couldn't see any black people in the craft unions," Smith told CBB. "And I checked it out and found out the unions weren't hiring blacks. The excuse was that there weren't any trained minorities." Not a man to accept excuses, Smith dreamed up Operation Dig.
Operation Dig provided African Americans the skills needed for construction union jobs. "I started training blacks on the weekends. I taught them how to operate bulldozers, cranes, all of it," Smith told CBB. Smith financed the program with help from Kaufmann and fellow Pittsburgh philanthropist Elsie Hillman of the Hillman Foundation. Smith also took out loans on his home to help pay for backhoes and scrapers for the program. Operation Dig launched in 1969 and within two years 90 African Americans were card-holding union members working on various job sites throughout Western Pennsylvania. "It just mushroomed from there," Smith told the New Pittsburgh Courier. The program was copied in states across the country and Smith became a civil rights star. He was profiled in the Wall Street Journal and named one of the 100 most influential blacks in America by Ebony.
Laid Life on the Line to
Despite its initial success, Operation Dig could not overcome the deeply rooted racism within the unions. "There was a problem going on," Smith explained to CBB. "The contractors wanted good workers, but the white union workers didn't want to lose their jobs to black workers." He continued, "Operation Dig made sure there were trained black workers but they still weren't getting hired. So we formed the Black Construction Coalition." In conjunction with the NAACP and other community and civil rights groups, Operation Dig formed the coalition to directly confront unfair hiring practices.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 had prohibited discrimination in employment. Thus Smith and company had the law on their side. They also had a militancy inspired by the Black Power movement that had risen up in anger against the slow march of civil rights. The coalition was ready to fight. It sponsored 800-people strong marches that often slipped into violent confrontations with the police. Marchers were beaten with billy clubs, sprayed with mace, and hauled off to jail. Not intimidated, Smith boldly employed other confrontational tactics. After a job supervisor reneged on an agreement to hire 10 black workers, Smith insisted on a meeting on the tenth floor of the building. "What happened was I held this man out the window," Smith told the New Pittsburgh Courier. "I grabbed him and held him out over the edge and told him, 'Look at all those people down there. They want jobs. You're going to hire them or I'm going to drop you.' He said, 'They're hired.' That's all it took." He continued, "He could have pulled me down with him. It wasn't like I was going to take his life. I was going to take our lives." Meanwhile "accidents" began to occur at job sites where African Americans were not employed. Though these actions secured some jobs for blacks, real success came when the coalition confronted the problem at its source—the construction sites.
"I laid down in front of bulldozers and stopped job sites. I said hire me or run me over," Smith told CBB. "At the time it seemed kind of crazy, but I really believed that God was on my side." In all, the Black Construction Coalition stopped work on ten building projects, including a highly publicized shutdown of Pittsburgh's Three Rivers baseball stadium site. "Contractors don't like that. When a site shuts down, they lose a lot of money," Smith told CBB. "So they listened to me, and they hired blacks." Smith's actions made him a hometown hero. "I'm the most popular man in Pittsburgh," he told the New Pittsburgh Courier. They also made him quite a few enemies. He received a bullet wound in his leg during a drive-by shooting attempt. During a ball game at Three Rivers, Smith's son was doused with gasoline and set on fire, suffering third-degree burns. No one was arrested in either incident.
Became Role Model and Mentor
The Black Construction Coalition led to the creation of the Pittsburgh Plan, a joint venture of local government, unions, and community groups designed to oversee the smooth integration of African Americans into the building trades. Though Smith was active with the plan, he began to focus his energies on his own business. "In 1969 I formed Nate Smith Enterprises, my own construction company. I started bidding on jobs and getting contracts." His firm worked on stadiums and schools, roads and highways—always with crews that included both blacks and whites.
In the decades since Operation Dig was founded, Smith has become a role model to children in Pittsburgh. "Our kids need someone to look up to. Someone who is not an athlete or an entertainer, but an everyday person. That's who I represent," he told the New Pittsburgh Courier. He visited dozens of public schools to talk about his role in the Civil Rights movement and to tell the kids about the career possibilities in the craft unions. He told Jet, "I want to see young minorities take advantage of the opportunities today that I created in the early '70s in the building trades." His work earned him a high school degree. Over 60 years after dropping out of school, Pittsburgh's Westinghouse High School awarded Smith an honorary diploma.
In the mid-1990s he teamed up with Pittsburgh contractor Gill Berry to develop Berry Enterprises in Partnership with Organized Labor, a training program to help inner-city teens acquire the skills needed for a union apprenticeship. In 2000 he helped launch Renaissance III, a recruitment and training program for minorities and women sponsored by 23 local trade unions. As late as 2004, well into his 75th year, Smith was still involved in the ongoing struggle to keep minorities on union jobs. "I still get a lot of calls from black workers. They call me up when they are having a problem on a job. Or if there aren't any blacks or women on a job," Smith told CBB. "And if word gets out that Nate Smith is looking into a job site, the contractors shape up. They don't want me coming out to a site."
Smith has received many honors for his activism including a plaque at Pittsburgh's historic Freedom Corner. Located on a former stop on the Underground Railroad, Freedom Corner honors Pittsburgh citizens who fought for civil rights. "It's beyond my wildest dreams that this would happen. I'm glad my name will be up there," he told the New Pittsburgh Courier. "This cost us a lot, in terms of getting beaten on the head with police truncheons, going to jail. But really, it's a small price to pay." Another honor that delighted Smith was when he was approached to make a movie about his life. He hoped the title would be Bacon and Eggs on Sunday Morning. "That's my philosophy," Smith told CBB. "If you live in America, you should be able to have bacon and eggs on Sunday morning. It means you can work. That you got a job." Minority union workers around the country should tip their Sunday morning coffee cup to Smith in salute.
Jet, March 29, 2004,
New Pittsburgh Courier, November 23, 1994; February 11, 1995; February 6, 1999; March 31, 2001; June 6, 2001; June 16, 2004.
"Community Leader, Nate Smith, to Receive 'Freedom Fighter' Award," Pittsburgh Public Schools, http://cms.pps.k12.pa.us/natesmith.asp?ezprint=6/23/200494741AM (October 28, 2004).
"Regular Meeting," Allegheny County Council, www.county.allegheny.pa.us/council/minutes/2004/meet240615.pdf (October 28, 2004).
Additional information for this profile was obtained through an interview with Nate Smith on December 7, 2004.