Cecil Smith (1959) grew up in Fresno in the 1940s and 1950s, a time in which the African American population of the city was very small. Because of this, one may think that Smith faced prejudice and felt out of place — but he never felt that way. He always wanted to be and always was part of the community, something that continues to this day.
Growing up, Smith says that working was something that everyone did, “you had to work.” For Smith that meant long, hard days working in the fields, something he decided he didn’t want to do. So after graduating high school, he enrolled at Fresno State so that he could remain a part of the community that he had grown up in.
At Fresno State, Smith did track and field — on what was then only a dirt track—and joined the Phi Alpha fraternity, the first African American chapter on campus. When Smith decided that he wanted to become a teacher it was his fraternity brothers that gave him support and encouraged him to do so.
“We don’t hire black teachers” was something Smith began to hear as he neared graduation; even his professors told him that he wouldn’t be able to find a job teaching, but his fraternity brothers told him that if he got his degree and obtained his teaching credential, something would eventually open for him. Smith followed their advice and eventually got connected to Bill Bigsby, a local business owner who helped him get a job teaching at Edison High School, where he stayed for his entire career, investing in the lives of Edison students and the south Fresno community.
“People will help you when they see you helping yourself,” Smith says of his experience with Bigsby.
Smith taught multiple subjects and coached five sports at Edison for 34 years before retiring in 1997. While at Edison, Smith became very well known on campus and was given a nickname, “Chief,” that students still use to this day when he goes back to the campus as a substitute teacher. Smith says that originally he had never planned on being a substitute teacher but took to it because of the sense of community that had developed for him at the high school, “You’re a member of the community; you get to know the students, the parents, it’s like a second home.”
In 2012 Smith received the Trailblazer award from Fresno’s African American Historical and Cultural Museum for being one of the first African American educators in the Valley.
Now, after being retired for 18 years, Smith looks back on teaching and says, “You see students later in life and they tell you the difference that you’ve made — that’s the most fulfilling part of being a teacher.”