Thelma and Benjamin Smith earned their place on the Ella Hill Hutch Community Center Inspiration murals for their extraordinary influence as parents in the community (Ness).
Benjamin Smith, Sr., known by his friends as “BJ,” was a community leader in the Western Addition neighborhood and was a mentor for many young people who lived there. His dedication to family values resonated throughout the neighborhood and made him a role model to the many people who knew him. Born on September 16, 1926, to Albert Berlin Smith, Sr., and Sallie Louis Smith in Leesville, Louisiana, Benjamin and his family would move to Tulsa, Oklahoma, then Merced, California, before finally settling in San Francisco (Obituary). Upon graduating from San Francisco’s Commerce High School during the height of the Second World War, Smith joined the segregated U.S. Army and was stationed in Alaska until he was honorably discharged in 1947.
After the war, Smith met his wife Thelma Payne and the two moved to San Francisco to raise their family of nine children. Smith had to work a multitude of jobs in order to support such a large family, sometimes working “two or three simultaneously” (Obituary). Benjamin worked as a cab driver, a janitor, at a meat market, and eventually as a transit operator and line trainer for the San Francisco Municipal Transit Authority (SFMTA). Smith passed down his dedication and passion for his work to his children. An SFMTA article notes that Benjamin Smith “was a Muni operator for nearly 20 years, and seven of the nine Smith children continued his legacy, working at Muni” (“A Muni Family Remembers Their Warriors Superstar”). Smith’s commitment to his job is reflected in the legacy that he left behind in the SFMTA community, a legacy that is continually upheld by his children.
Thelma and Benjamin Smith instilled the value of education in all nine of their children.
Benjamin and Thelma worked hard to provide for their family. They made a focused effort to set a positive example for both their children and the community as a whole. The Smiths deeply valued the role of education and instilled these beliefs in their children from a young age. SFMTA reporter Victoria Botts noted, “It was [Benjamin and Thelma’s] mission to see their children succeed and overcome the obstacles presented here in the neighborhood” (“A Muni Family Remembers Their Warriors Superstar”). The task of raising such a large family in the Western Addition neighborhood was not always easy, but Thelma and Benjamin saw education as a way to combat the negative forces they observed. Alexis Hubbard, volunteer at the Ella Hill Hutch Community Center, explained, “They were outspoken as to the importance of education and did everything in their power to ensure their children succeeded academically” (“A Muni Family Remembers Their Warriors Superstar”). Although Benjamin Smith had a strong appreciation for sports, education was an aspect that he made a priority for his children. This emphasis on using education as a tool to better one’s own circumstances is one of the Smith family’s cornerstone principles.
In addition to being a loving husband and father, Benjamin Smith was a role model and mentor to many young people growing up in the Western Addition neighborhood. As his obituary notes, “BJ not only taught youth about sports, but gave them life lessons and spiritual advice.” In addition to his community support, it was also well known that Benjamin would always find a way to make time for his family amidst his busy schedule of numerous jobs. His obituary points out that, “Even after working two or three jobs he still made time to raise and coach all his children to be outstanding individuals.”
Throughout his life, Benjamin enjoyed playing and watching sports, especially basketball, and was fond of his role in assisting the USF Athletic Program with recruitment of athletes.
One of Benjamin and Thelma’s sons, Phillip, would even go on to become an NBA player and win an NBA championship with the Golden State Warriors in 1975. Phil was known for being a caring and humble individual in addition to being an elite basketball player. His excellence on and off the basketball court is, in many ways, a testament to Benjamin and Thelma’s dedication to raising a family with strong moral, social, and educational values.
An SFMTA employee explains that the Smith home was “awash with memories and photos of virtually each and every one of Benjamin and Thelma Smith’s nine children, their grandchildren and their great grandchildren” (“A Muni Family Remembers Their Warriors Superstar”).
Adored grandmother of 25, and great-grandmother of four, Thelma Smith passed away on July 3, 2005. She was survived by Benjamin Smith, Sr., who passed away on June 23, 2018, at the age of 91. The Smith family legacy lives on through their children, grandchildren and great grandchildren whom they dearly loved.
— Zachary James
“A Celebration of Life of Benjamin Smith, Sr.” Providence Baptist Church. 6 Jul 2018.
“A Muni Family Remembers Their Warriors Superstar.” SFMTA. 27 May 2016.
Ness, Carol. “Faces of Black Success.” SFGate. 6 Jul 1999.
“Thelma Vivian Smith.” Legacy.com. 2005.