Jeannine Smith Clark first came to the Smithsonian as a volunteer docent in the National Museum of Natural History. The year was 1968, with the Poor Peoples’ Campaign led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference organizing a tent city known as Resurrection City at the Washington Monument grounds. Clark was already volunteering for several groups when Smithsonian volunteer Betty Jane Gerber recruited her as a docent for the Smithsonian. Over the 48 years since then, she has served the Institution in an amazing variety of roles, ensuring cultural diversity and the highest standard of public service at the Smithsonian.
A fifth generation Washingtonian, Mrs. Clark attended Dunbar High School in Washington, D.C., and then received her B.A. and M.A. in African Studies from Howard University. She taught briefly at Dunbar and Sidwell Friends School. In 1951, she married Charles H. Clark, a surgeon, and was required to resign while expecting her first child. She turned to volunteer work while her three children were growing up and has continued ever since.
She initially hoped to establish Smithsonian tours for the residents of Resurrection City, but found herself assigned to the tours of the ever popular Native American halls. Given her advanced education in African studies, she was more interested in giving tours of the African culture hall. When she was told it did not attract as many visitors, she initiated a tour program to make it more accessible. She also worked to expand the D.C. Public Schools’ tours of the Smithsonian’s museums.
By 1972 she was elected to the Smithsonian Women’s Committee, a fundraising group, and served as chair in 1979 and 1980, and led its volunteer committee in the 1970s and 1980s. In 1983, she was the first volunteer elected to the Smithsonian’s governing board, the Board of Regents. As a woman, African American, and volunteer, she brought new perspectives to the management of the Institution. To this end, Mrs. Clark was involved in a group that supported affirmative action initiatives at the Smithsonian.
At the urging of Ralph Rinzler, director of the Folklife Center, and James Early, Assistant Secretary for Public Service, Mrs. Clark served as the first head of the Cultural Education Committee in 1987. The group itself was diverse, representing the needs of many different cultures. A subcommittee within this was focused on reforming hiring processes so that job advertisements brought people with diverse life experiences to the Smithsonian community. They also sought to identify qualified people already working at the Smithsonian that were eligible to move into supervisory positions. They worked on hiring procedures, so people coming from economically disadvantaged backgrounds would have equal opportunity to be hired. Another lasting accomplishment of this committee was the establishment of the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration, a tradition continued today by the Anacostia Community Museum.
Mrs. Clark was on another subcommittee that focused on D.C. youth and education within the Smithsonian. One of their major accomplishments was providing transportation to the museums for local children. She learned that school buses were not available for D.C. children to visit the Smithsonian, so she arranged for buses normally used to take children with disabilities to school to deliver field trip groups to the Smithsonian after they completed their normal routes.
Mrs. Clark brought a new viewpoint to the Board of Regents and her other Smithsonian activities. Secretary S. Dillon Ripley once told her that she had been appointed a regent because she knew more about the Smithsonian than anyone else on the board. Mrs. Clark’s career certainly inspired an increase and diffusion of knowledge. Her service bettered the Smithsonian in a time when the Institution struggled to integrate different cultural experiences in its exhibits, staff, and audience. As a professional black woman from Washington, D.C., whose voice reached many committees and important leaders, she influenced the transformation of the Smithsonian into a more culturally diverse institution.
Jeannine Smith Clark (10/05/1928-), Smithsonian Institution Archives
African American Women Educators at the Smithsonian, The Bigger Picture Blog, Smithsonian Institution Archives
“It Won’t Be Easy to Leave after 40 Years”: Sophie Lutterlough’s Career at the National Museum of Natural History, The Bigger Picture Blog, Smithsonian Institution Archives