Home > Nate Smith - Fought His Way into the Union, Bulldozed Path for Blacks in Construction

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Nate Smith - Fought His Way into the Union, Bulldozed Path for Blacks in Construction

His wife of 60 years, says Nate is now living in a nursing home and not doing that well.

Nate Smith"I want to see young minorities take advantage of the opportunities today that I created in the early '70s in the building trades." That's my philosophy," If you live in America, you should be able to have bacon and eggs on Sunday morning. It means you can work. That you got a job." Minority union workers around the country should tip their Sunday morning coffee cup to Smith in salute," Nate Smith.

Civil and labor rights activist Nate Smith, who gained national prominence in the '70s and '80s in building trades in Pittsburgh, and pushed for diversity in skilled labor.

In the 1970s, Smith started Operation Dig, a training program in Pittsburgh to help Blacks gain union membership. The labor program became a model for the nation.

Smith appeared on the cover of JET in 1971 and 1974 and was named among EBONY's 100 Most Influential Black Americans.


PUM: How is Nate doing, and how are you?

Minnie Smith: Not well, Nate has been in a nursing home since May, he has been suffering for a long time with Alzheimer's, he' is also legally blind, and recovering from prostate cancer. He is a sick man, some days he is good, other days he is out of it. To watch his transformation, is really sad, and it's really been hard on me, we have been married for sixty years, and now he is in a nursing home. I really get depressed over this situation, and I am learning how to deal with the pain as a caregiver of a loved one living with this disease. But Nate was really a danger to himself, he could not walk, it was a must that he go into a nursing home, he needed someone to watch him 24-7.

PUM: About two years ago, Nate was mugged while walking to a bus stop near his home in Homewood. He suffered injuries to his head and eyes requiring more than 15 stitches. Did they ever find the perpetrators?

Minnie Smith: No, they didn't arrest anyone, and it's just sad that they could do that to him, after all that he has done for the community. After the mugging happened, Nate went down the hill, he was hit on the head, I think for a while he was in denial about this incident. We later didn't really believe that he had Alzheimer's, but we noticed after the mugging a change in Nate and we started to pay more attention, but he wasn't himself, he became bed ridden. I enrolled in a caregivers study through the University of Pittsburgh that helps caregivers of Alzheimer's patients for people who are depressed — it has really been terrible on me. I will be 83 years old in September, and after all of this, I had a stroke because of the stress related to this situation and having to put Nate in a nursing home.

PUM: What about Nate's accomplishments? What are you most proud of?

Minnie Smith: Now that I am looking at the life and death of Ted Kennedy today, I am especially appreciative of some of the things my husband did for people, he put his life on the line for many people. Back in that day, you didn't play around with unions, many times I was afraid to start the car because I feared it would blow up. Nate did a wonderful job for his fellow man, and now watching Kennedy, I would say, on a smaller scale, Nate also went out on a limb for people, like Kennedy trying to get right's for people.

PUM: How are you feeling regarding where Nate is today and his legacy?

Minnie Smith: I am bitter toward people because of how they have treated Nate. He was kind toward people, gave of himself, and was taken advantage of by many people who worked with him and knew him personally. They took advantage of his kindness and ignorance. I pray that God will give them a spanking for taking advantage of Nate. I know it is not right to hold grudges, the lord prayer says for us to forgive, but right now I am praying that those folks who took advantage of my husband pay for their actions. So many people forgot Nate, they didn't even send him a card when he got sick, this is sad, after all the people he helped.

PUM: What about the current construction job opportunities, what do you think Nate would say about where African Americans stand?

Minnie Smith: He would not be happy with the state of where blacks are today, as it relates to being able to get construction jobs, and if Nate was well he would still be dedicated to helping get people jobs, he was committed to the struggle, I just can't believe all the people who forgot all that he did.

PUM: How do you view your long relationship with Nate?

Minnie Smith: He has been my everything, I had everything, and didn't need anything, Nate saw to that. We start dating in 1946 when I was in high school, he took me to my first prom, we had a 60 year marriage, now, I am somewhat alone and having to live with that fact, it is a little traumatic, but I still feel blessed because of all my years with Nate.

More About Nate Smith:

  • Born: February 23, 1929, Pittsburgh, PA
  • Spouse: Minnie Smith
  • Children: Nate Jr., Renee, and Sabrina
  • Military/Wartime Service: U.S. Navy, 1940-42.
  • Memberships:
  • Selected: Operation PUSH/Rainbow Coalition, executive board member; Pittsburgh Cancer Institute, volunteer; Western Hospital, consultant
  • Career: Local 66 of the Operating Engineers' Union, Pittsburgh, PA, heavy equipment operator, 1944-196?; Operation Dig, Pittsburgh, PA, founder, 1968-; Nate Smith Enterprises, Pittsburgh, PA, founder, 1969-

Life's Work

From lying in order to enter the navy at the age of 12 to boxing his way into the union at 16, Nate Smith proved that he knew how to get what he wanted. What he wanted in the mid-1960s was to break the color barriers in the construction industry in Pittsburgh. To do so, he laid down in front of bulldozers to stop work at construction sites. He also formed an innovative training program that was emulated nationwide. For his efforts he received death threats and beatings. But he got what he wanted. Not only in Pittsburgh, but across the country, construction unions opened up to blacks. Smith told Contemporary Black Biography (CBB) that he estimated that he helped some 2,000 people get union cards over the years. The New Pittsburgh Courier placed that number closer to 17,000. No matter the final figure, Smith's legacy lives on daily in the black workers who now have steady work at solid union wages. "He is why I'm here," a 21-year old African-American union worker told the New Pittsburgh Courier in 2004. "I'm not here because of what I did. I'm here because of what Nate did."

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