Seattle City Councilmember Sam Smith

Samuel J. Smith enjoyed a rich 24-year career as the first African-American member of the Seattle City Council. His personal warmth toward contemporaries and constituents was renowned among followers of municipal history, as was his dedication to social and economic justice.

Born on July 21, 1922, in Gibsland, Louisiana, Smith was the youngest child of eight siblings. Graduating from high school in 1940, Smith was drafted into the Army two years later, reaching the rank of warrant officer after two years of service in Seattle and the Philippines, among other places. Following the war's end, Smith settled permanently in Seattle's Central District and married Marion King, his high school sweetheart. Together, the two would raise six children.

Earning degrees in Social Science from Seattle University and Economics from the University of Washington, Smith started work at Boeing in 1952. He began his long political career in 1956, running a losing campaign for a seat in the Washington State Legislature. Smith was more successful two years later, securing election to the State House of Representatives for Seattle's 37th District. He served five consecutive terms, and was a vocal proponent of civil rights legislation, particularly the anti-discrimination Open Housing Law that eventually passed in 1967. The same year, Smith left the Legislature to run for a seat on the Seattle City Council.

Smith's legislative agenda remained largely unaltered during the transition to the City Council. The freshman soon spearheaded the successful adoption of a municipal Open Housing Law in 1968. Throughout his career, Smith also pressed for the hiring of African-American police officers and firefighters, and, as the long-time chairman of the Utilities Committee, opposed the increase of power, water, and garbage rates for low-income residents. He served as City Council President from 1974 to 1977 and again from 1986 to 1989, and chaired the Public Safety Committee, Housing and Human Services Committee, and the Labor Committee, in addition to Utilities. Smith also ran repeatedly for Mayor of Seattle, mounting four unsuccessful campaigns for the position.

Both in council chambers and among the public, Smith developed a reputation as an amiable and accessible politico. He consistently evinced a casual, to-the-point style when chairing Council meetings, and kept up a robust correspondence with constituents on a wide range of subjects and concerns.

Smith, in his long career as a public servant, did not shy away from controversy when he stood up for issues that he believed in. In 1988, for example, the King County Metro transit agency purchased $480,000 worth of granite for use in the renovation of a transit tunnel. Notably, the granite was procured from South Africa, in defiance of a directive by the overseeing Metro Council prohibiting the import of materials from the apartheid regime. This event generated strong opinions both for and against, and eventually resulted in the resignation of Metro Council Director Alan Gibbs. Smith, a member of the Metro Council himself, came down firmly against the purchase, despite criticism from a Seattle Times editorial. A response letter to the Times editorial from Smith, fellow councilman Norm Rice, and King County councilman Ron Sims, is linked below.

During the final years of his tenure, Smith was increasingly beset with health problems; in 1986, he lost his left leg to complications from diabetes, and lost his right leg to the same in 1991. Distracted by ailments and the recent death of wife Marion, Smith finally lost his Council seat in 1991 to Sherry Harris, and began a period of retirement. In 1995, Smith passed away at the age of 73. His funeral was attended by over 2,000 friends, admirers, and contemporaries.


General information

  • Promotional pamphlet for Smith's successful campaign for Seattle City Council (1967)

  • Audio recording with selected excerpts from a June 29th, 1973 meeting of the Public Safety Committee, in which was discussed impending state legislation relating to gambling, as well as the possibility of the city taxing non-professional gambling, such as bingo and pull tabs.

    Meeting of the City Council's Public Safety Committee, June 29, 1973

    Sam Smith, chairman, brings the Committee meeting to order, and introduces the day's agenda. (mp3, 1237k)

    Smith disagrees with testimony of Seattle Chief of Police George Tielsh. (mp3, 350k)

    Smith argues with witness Edward Watton, chairman of the Municipal League Public Safety and Health Committee, over (mp3, 392k)

    Recording of full meeting.

    Audio Citation: Event 1869. Seattle City Council Audio Recordings, 4601-03. Seattle Municipal Archives.

  • City Council resolution expressing the Council and Mayor's sympathy and condolences to Sam Smith's family and friends upon his passing (November 20, 1995)

Smith's relationship with constituents

  • Letter to Smith from constituent Gale West about legal problems, along with Smith's response (May 6 & July 11, 1989)
  • Letter to Smith from constituent Nellie Flynn about concerns over her son's drug problem, along with Smith's rough draft response (December 4, 1990)

Issues of Open Housing and Race

  • Human Rights Commission pamphlet summarizing the Open Housing Ordinance (1968)
  • Minutes from a Committee of the Whole meeting, during which the Open Housing Ordinance was passed (April 19, 1968)
  • Excerpt from a report by Smith as Chairman of the Seminar Planning Committee for the Seminar on Equal Opportunity and Racial Harmony (May 20, 1968)

The South African Granite Controversy

  • Letter to the Seattle Times by prominent African American politicians, Smith, Ron Sims, and Norm Rice concerning the South African granite issue (March 9, 1989)
  • Letter to Smith from constituent Cornell W. Acheson concerning South African granite issue, along with Smith's response (May 6 & June 20, 1989)


Sam Smith at microphone Sam Smith with George Benson
Smith at the official opening of Bryant Playfield (May 4, 1978)
Images 193343 and 195347, Seattle Municipal Archives
Volunteer Week announcement
Kathryn McGeary, Sam Smith, Ann Schultz, and
Kynert Whittiker announcing Volunteer Week at
the Seattle Municipal Building (April 19, 1974)
University of Washington Libraries,
Special Collections, MPH1497
Smith in his office
Smith, in his office, speaks with a young guest
during a photo shoot for a Veterans of
Foreign Wars proclamation (May 7, 1987)
Image 166361, Seattle Municipal Archives
Smith with Santa Claus
Councilmember Sam Smith shakes hands with
Santa Claus as part of a presentation of
umbrellas for the City Council
(December 12, 1977)
Image 166332, Seattle Municipal Archives


Textual Records

Sam Smith (Record Group 4682)
Correspondence, reports, notes, and agendas from Smith's office during the latter part (1977-1991) of his long tenure as City Councilman (1967-1991). Primary subjects include utilities, public safety, social services, and issues within the African-American community.

Norm Rice, Subject Files (Record Series 4674-02)
Correspondence, memoranda, reports, and studies relating to Rice and the South African Granite controversy, in which Smith was involved as a member of the presiding Metro Council.

  • Box 12, Folders 11-12: General Government. Intergovernmental Relations. Metro. Granite Pavers Issue. South Africa, Urban Mass Transportation Administration, South Africa, 1989
  • Box 13, Folder 1: General Government. Intergovernmental Relations. Metro. Granite Pavers Issue. South Africa, Urban Mass Transportation Administration, South Africa, 1989

Vertical Files (Record Series VF-0000)
Collection of articles, brochures and pamphlets, biographical information, research papers, ephemera, and other materials.

  • Box 1, Folder 73: Sam Smith: In His Own Words (Seattle Post-Intelligencer)
  • Box 2, Folder 426: Sam Smith. Campaign and Biographical Information.

Ethics and Elections Commission, Campaign Finance Reports (Record Series 2202-02)
Public Disclosure Commission campaign finance reports (C1, C3 and C4) filed by candidates running for city office, citizen groups and local issue political action committees. Reports document campaign contributions and expenditures.

  • Box 2, Folders 7, 16-17: Sam Smith and Friends of Sam Smith, 1983-1984
  • Box 10, Folders 2-3: Friends of Sam Smith and Sam Smith Campaign Fund, 1987
  • Box 11, Folders 17-18: Sam Smith and Friends of Sam Smith, 1988
  • Box 19, Folder 10: Sam Smith, 1989
  • Box 24, Folder 12: Sam Smith, 1990
  • Box 30, Folders 9-10: Sam Smith, 1991

City Council Resolutions (Record Series 1801-09)
Resolutions are City legislation of an advisory nature, which state policy, or which take certain actions without the force of law.

  • Council Resolution 29245: "A RESOLUTION expressing the Seattle City Council and Mayor's sympathy and condolences to Sam Smith's family and friends upon his passing and our deep appreciation for his many contributions to Seattle city government and the community."

Clerk Files (Record Series 1802-01)
Materials placed "on file" with the City Clerk as an official City file. Types of records include affidavits, agreements, audits, applications, appointments, contracts, correspondence, annual reports, Mayor's messages and vetoes, petitions, policies and procedures, City publications, and legislation background materials. These records can be generated by elected officials, City agencies, and the general public. Search the clerk file database using terms like "smith" and "sam smith."

  • Over 100 clerk files concerning various acts of Smith in the City Council, including public disclosure forms, campaign finance reports, proposals, and official requests.

Audio Recordings

Selected audio recordings in the Seattle Municipal Archives available for research use. The recordings indexed to date are of full City Council meetings and Council committee meetings of which Smith was a part of, including the Public Safety Committee, Utilities Committee, Housing and Human Services Committee, and the Labor Committee. Search audio records in our digital collections for "smith" or "Sam Smith."

  • Approximately 10 recordings of Council meetings featuring Smith in some fashion, from the period 1973-1978. More recordings may be found by searching for meetings of committees for which Smith is known to be a member.

Other Resources

The Samuel J. Smith Papers 1954-1991 (1964-1999), held by the Washington State Archives consists of a large collection of political records including campaign material, correspondence, speeches, and newspaper clippings. Around half of the collection deals with Smith's time as a Washington State legislator (1958-1967), and the other half with his tenure as City Councilman. Prominent subjects include open housing, election reform, civil rights, Seattle history and political topics.

The Washington State Heritage Center's Legacy Project publishes biographical information for notable figures of state history. Its website features an entry for Samuel Smith, which features an edited oral history provided by Smith near his death in 1995. Also included with the history are a number of photographs, clippings, and shorter interviews with Smith's siblings.

Municipal Archives, City Clerk

Anne Frantilla, City Archivist
Address: 600 Fourth Avenue, Third Floor, Seattle, WA, 98104
Mailing Address: PO Box 94728, Seattle, WA, 98124-4728
Phone: (206) 684-8353

The Office of the City Clerk maintains the City's official records, provides support for the City Council, and manages the City's historical records through the Seattle Municipal Archives. The Clerk's Office provides information services to the public and to City staff.