Power Couples in the Archives, Pt. 2: Mary Perry Smith and Norvel L. Smith

Mary Perry Smith (1926-2015) and her husband Norvel L. Smith (1924-1984) were educators,  community activists, advocates for social justice, and supporters of African-American culture. The couple met while teaching in Texas and moved to Oakland in 1951. Norvel Smith became the first African American to head a California college when he was appointed president of Merritt College in 1968. He served as president until 1973, when he became Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs at UC, Berkeley. Smith retired from that job in 1982.

In 1970, Mary Perry Smith co-founded the Mathematics Engineering Science Achievement (MESA) program at Oakland Tech High School. MESA’s goal was to provide academic support to students who were historically underrepresented in science and math fields and increase the numbers of African American, Latino, and American Indian graduates from four-year universities. The program spread throughout the state and continues to encourage students to excel in math and science and pursue college degrees in STEM fields: https://mesa.ucop.edu/

In 1974, Smith co-founded the the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame in Oakland. The organization and its archives are dedicated to studying, teaching, and preserving the contributions Black filmmakers and actors made to U.S. cinema: http://www.blackfilmmakershalloffamearchives.com/.

In addition to their work as educators and cultural advocates, the Smiths were active in the civil rights movement and fought against injustice. Norvel Smith discussed his interest in prison issues and the administration of justice in an oral history he did with the Regional Oral History Office at Bancroft, “A Life in Education and Community Service”:


Smith’s papers document his work as co-chair (with attorney Charles Gary) of the Bob Wells Defense Committee, which worked to get Robert Wesley Wells off death row in the 1970s.

The Mary Perry Smith and Norvel L. Smith papers document the couples’ professional work and community activism and are open for research at The Bancroft Library.

Finding aid to the Mary Perry Smith papers (BANC MSS 2016/195):


Norvel L. Smith papers (BANC MSS 2016/199):