Willis Smith (1887 – 1953)

Written By Jonathan Martin

Willis Smith was born in Norfolk, Virginia, on December 19, 1887, but shortly after the death of his father, Smith’s mother moved to North Carolina in 1889.  Smith attended Trinity College, where he later earned a law degree in 1912.  Smith became Speaker of the North Carolina House of Representatives, president American Bar Association, and a United States Senator from 1950 until 1953.

In 1889 Mary Smith, Willis’s mother, moved with her son to Elizabeth City, where she became president of a private school.  Willis studied at Elizabeth City’s Atlantic Collegiate Institute, and he graduated from Trinity College in 1910 and its law school in 1912.  From 1915 until 1920, Smith worked as an inheritance tax attorney, and at the end of World War I, he served in the U.S. Army.

Smith served in the state legislature from 1927 until 931, the year he presided as the Speaker of the House.  In the 1940s, Willis Smith chaired the Democratic Convention, and in 1944 he was a delegate to the Democratic National Convention. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, Smith represented the U.S. at the Nuremburg Trials and delegated at the Inter-parliamentary Union in Turkey in 1951. In 1950, Willis Smith decided to run for the U.S. Senate after the death of J. Melville Broughton.

The election race between Willis Smith and Frank P. Graham in 1950 marked a showdown between conservative and liberal Democrats that highlighted the inter-party schism regarding societal and economic goals.  Governor Kerr Scott appointed Frank Potter Graham, president of the University of North Carolina, to finish the term of Senator J. Melville Broughton who recently had passed away.  Yet Willis Smith, a conservative Democrat, ran against Graham in the Democratic primary.

During the election race, Smith used bloc voting (when a group comes together and votes in concert on an important issue or candidate) to describe Graham’s impressive voting returns in Durham and the surrounding area. In addition, Smith’s campaign painted Graham as a supporter of integration, communism, and, as historian W. Lee Johnston, Jr. writes concerning the campaign, “one who favors mixing the races” (p. 129). Smith defeated Graham in the runoff election, and he moved on to defeat Republican E. R. Gavin in the November election.

Willis Smith married Anna Lee in 1919, and the couple had four children. Smith served in the U.S. Senate until his death when he passed away in Bethesda, Maryland, on June 26, 1953. Smith was interred at the Oakwood Cemetery in Raleigh.