Cover photo for Dr. J. Howell Smith's Obituary

Dr. J. Howell Smith

July 17, 1936 — January 11, 2023


Dr. J. Howell Smith

Dr. James Howell Smith, age 86, passed away Wednesday, January 11, 2023.  He had an incredible joy of learning and brought both faith and intellect to his relationship with God.

Born July 17, 1936, in Farmersville, Texas, to Henry Howell Smith and Rosa Gladden Smith, Howell grew up with a close-knit group of cousins. He graduated from Baylor University in 1958, received his Master’s from Tulane University in 1961, and his Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin in 1968.  

In 1965 he began his work at Wake Forest University History Department, teaching from 1965-2012. He was Department Chair from 1987-1995. Dr. Smith taught the first African American History Course at Wake Forest. He was Pre-Law Advisor and served on various student and faculty committees including chairing the program review which established an Asian Studies Major. A highlight of his time at Wake Forest was the semester in London and the students who shared it.

He participated in the White House Conference on the 25th Amendment and Presidential Disability in 1996. He served nationally and locally on one of his favorite programs, History Day, and was a regular reader/consultant for the U.S. History Advanced Placement exams.

Throughout his professional career he led students and faculty by example: challenging, learning and teaching.  He opened doors for many individuals from historically underrepresented communities, assisting in increasing professional, cultural and gender diversity on campus.  One of his last projects brought together students from Wake Forest and Winston-Salem State University. Alongside Professor Suzanne Warren, he trained students in oral history techniques so that they could interview teachers, administrators and others involved in the desegregation process of the Winston-Salem Forsyth County Schools. Those interviews are now in the WFU Library Archives.

Howell was a dedicated peacemaker, faithful church servant and community supporter.  In Winston-Salem, he was a member of the Citizens Advisory Council in the public school system, a member of the Wachovia Historical Society and a founding board member of the local Big Brothers/Big Sisters.  He participated in Leadership Winston-Salem. Working with the Diversity Partnership Committee of United Metropolitan Baptist Church and First Baptist Church on Fifth, he helped start a summer basketball camp for young people co-taught by coaches and players from Wake Forest University and Winston-Salem State University. He worked with the Salemtowne Retirement Community Family Council Executive Committee and was on the Salemtowne Board of Directors.

For decades he was in leadership in his church. He taught Sunday School and sang in choirs and served on the Diaconate both at Wake Forest Baptist Church and then at First Baptist Church on Fifth.

In Weaverville he served on the Kyfields Townhouse Association Board and participated in activities of First Baptist Church Weaverville. He spent his last year in the Healthcare Center at Brooks-Howell, a retirement community in Asheville, surrounded by new friends and a remarkable health care community. The family expresses heart-felt thanks to his many amazing caregivers at Brooks-Howell, and his home caregivers, John Lauzon and Lyda Karrh.  

Howell is survived by his wife of 64 years, Jeanette Chapman Smith, his son Hilton Howell Smith and spouse Cindy McWethy Smith, his daughter Susan “Smitty” Dotson-Smith and her spouse Matthew Dotson-Smith, two beloved grandchildren, Serena “Blair” Dotson-Smith and Maya Dotson-Smith, and countless wonderful cousins and friends. He was preceded in death by his parents and his brother, Joe Burt Smith.

His family is grateful for his leadership in their lives and for the example Howell set to be present and helpful, to work hard and to laugh easily, knowing the joy that is found in worthwhile work and giving back to the community, taking risks and approaching change with curiosity, not fear.  He adored his family and was proud of their values as well as their accomplishments.

Services will be held at First Baptist Church, 63 North Main St., Weaverville, NC, on Saturday, February 4, 2023, at 2:00 p.m. West Family Funeral Services in Weaverville, NC is handling local arrangements. There will be a service in Wait Chapel on the campus of Wake Forest University Saturday March 25th, at 2:00 p.m.; and an additional service in Farmersville, Texas to be held at the Farmersville IOOF Cemetery on Saturday, April 22, 2023 at 11:30 a.m. 

Condolences may be offered to the family through In lieu of flowers, the family has requested donations be made to a charity of your choice, or to the J. Howell Smith Family History Department Fund, which encourages students to become historians. This can be done online at  

To order memorial trees or send flowers to the family in memory of Dr. J. Howell Smith, please visit our flower store.

Past Services

Memorial Service

Saturday, February 4, 2023

Starts at 2:00 pm (Eastern time)

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