Biography of Katharine Smith. Social Justice in Long Island.

May 14, 2008 at 10:05 am Leave a comment

“Smiling always with a never failing serenity and flourishing in an immortal youth.” That description of Katharine Smith when she retired in 1962 is recorded on a plate presented to her by her many friends in the Nassau County Welfare Department. Twenty years later, at chronological age 90, the description is still apt. A lifelong Socialist and pacifist, her commitment to social justice, freedom, and equality is almost awesome in scope. But it is no grim struggle. She proves, in her daily life, how joyous and fulfilling is the battle for a better world.

Katharine was born in 1892 in the tiny town of Milbank, S.D., where her father was a preacher. When she was 6, the family moved to a cooperative colony in the state of Washington, near Puget Sound. There her father served as a Methodist pastor, edited a newspaper, and inveighed against the lumber and fishing barons…

Katharine was heavily influenced by her father’s political commitment. He had first run for county assessor on the Single Tax program espoused by reformer Henry George, and later ran for governor…but in neither case was he elected…

…Faced with the need to raise money, Katharine for two years taught school to children of immigrant miners in mining towns in the Cascade Mountains.

Finally able to attend the University of Washington, she was disappointed to find so few students interested in social responsibility. While still at the university, she became engaged to Warren Smith, a young mining engineer, and after graduating cum laude in 1917, they were married and moved to a mining camp in northern Ontario…

Katharine went to the socialist, attended conferences of the League for Industrial Democracy at Camp Tamiment, and went to Socialist Party conferences at the Homestead, operated by Community Church in Mahopac, NY. In 1931 she ran for the State Assembly on the Socialist Party ticket, but lost with about 500 votes. In 1934 she took a job as a social worker for the Nassau County Welfare Department, eventually becoming a supervisor, until she retired, at age 70, in 1962. Through the 1930’s and 1940’s, her outside activities rapidly expanded. She helped run a cooperative store in Hempstead and was treasurer of the Author’s Forum, which sponsored speeches by socially conscious authors. She helped start a Socialist Party local in the Five Towns Area.

When Jerry Wurf, later to become the president of the million-member American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, AFL-CIO, lived in Freeport for a while, Katharine worked with him closely. She drove Jerry to meetings all over the island and went with him upstate to a college in central New York for a Socialist conference…

She went upstate with Morris Milgram to collect nominating petition signatures for the Socialist Party and held picnics in her backyard for Norman Thomas, the noted Socialist leader who lived on the North Shore. For many years the Socialist Party local met regularly at the Smith home.

from a program for
Katharine Smith’s 90th Birthday Salute


Biography written by Harry Fleischman. With a note: “With appreciation to Noel Rubinton, from whose excellent article on ‘The Unshakeable Katharine Smith’ in the Feb 24, 1980 Newsday’s L.I. Magazine I have borrowed freely for this story.”

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