Photographs and memories

C. Smith, at home, enjoying retirement. Urban League photo/Mark Curnutte

C. Smith, at home, enjoying retirement. Urban League photo/Mark Curnutte


For 60 years, photographer C. Smith captured the black community’s public struggles and its private celebrations.

Smith started his career at 14, in 1949, when he developed film in a darkroom at the Cotton Club, Sixth and Mound streets, in the West End. The original Cotton Club, in the Sterling Hotel, was the only integrated night club in Cincinnati and played host to the greatest black orchestras and performers of the era.

“I worked for Ed Coleman, who owned Super Speed Photography Studio,” Smith said. “He’d have the stars, people like Cab Calloway, come through the studio there, and he’d take their picture,” Smith said. “I’d develop the film, and Ed would give them the photo.”

That darkroom experience was the beginning of a long career that saw Smith become the most recognized African-American photographer in Cincinnati. His was there to record the black celebrities — James Brown — who performed in segregated Cincinnati. Smith was there to record news of the civil rights years, documenting protests outside of the Emery Theatre in Over-the-Rhine about the appearance of Bull Connor, the segregationist police chief of Birmingham, Ala. Smith was there for weddings, anniversaries and christenings in Cincinnati’s black community.

Having just turned 80, Smith officially retired earlier this month and closed the studio he’d operated on Reading Road in Avondale since 1983. A retirement party, held against Smith’s initial wishes July 17 at New Friendship Baptist Church, attracted 366 guests.

His personal experiences growing up and living in Jim Crow America shaped his work. His parents and two siblings fled their home in Nashville, Tennessee, the night the Ku Klux Klan was coming after his father. “My dad ran out of gas in Cincinnati,” he said.

Smith worked first as a printer out of trade school, earning $1.50 an hour as a black man when whites were paid $3.50. He could not join the union but was allowed to work as much overtime as he wanted — still making just $1.50 an hour.

Even after he had established his business and reputation as a photographer, Smith learned he was not immune to some white’s view of him as a second-class citizen. In the early-mid 1960s, he recalled, a rally Downtown at a Vine Street dental office protested a separate black waiting room. Two white men told Smith to stop snapping pictures and threatened to “kick my black ass. … I put my camera down and went after one of them. I tried to grab him and was going to kick his. They ran off. I told the preachers that I wasn’t bound by their non-violence ways. I was going to defend myself.”

Smith had accumulated a number of honors late in his career: He’s in the Who’s Who in Black Cincinnati’s seventh edition (2013). The African American Chamber Greater Cincinnati / Northern Kentucky inducted Smith in its inaugural 2015 Black Business Hall of Fame class. In 2008, the Greater Cincinnati Urban League recognized Smith as one of its Glorifying the Lions award winners. The name of the award, presented to people 65 or older, originates in the African proverb that says, “Until the lions have their own historian, tales of hunting will always glorify the hunter.”

Clearly, Smith, like many who work as chroniclers, are uneasy with attention. He’s not the story. He was and remains more comfortable behind the camera than in front of it.

“I’m not a speaker. I’m not a talker,” Smith said recently on the back porch of his Bond Hill home. “God has been good to me. I recognize that. I am grateful. All my friends died off. If they’re not dead, they’re in wheelchairs.

“I can still run a 100-yard dash. I roller-blade at Lunken Airport. I fish.”

And on a summer afternoon, Smith thumbed through several albums and books of his photographs and provided a personal history:

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