north carolina highway historical marker program
North Carolina Highway Historical Marker Program
 

 
 
 

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     United States Senator Willis Smith was born to Willis and Mary Shaw Creecy Smith in Norfolk, Virginia, on December 19, 1887. When the elder Willis died two years later, young Willis and his mother moved to Elizabeth City where she ran a small private school. Smith attended school at Elizabeth City’s Atlantic Collegiate Institute. He graduated from Trinity College in 1910 and went on to complete the school’s law course in 1912. The same year he was admitted to the bar and began practicing in Raleigh. In his years of practice, he was involved in civil, corporate, industrial, and insurance law. Smith served as an inheritance tax attorney for North Carolina from 1915 to 1920, taking time off in 1918 while he served in the Army at Fort Monroe, Virginia.

     Before becoming a U.S. Senator, Smith was elected to the North Carolina House of Representatives in 1927, 1929, and 1931. He served as Speaker of the House in 1931. During the 1940s he held the chairmanship of the state Democratic Convention and served as a delegate to the 1944 Democratic National Convention. His election to the Senate came in 1950 followed a heated, racially charged primary with Frank Porter Graham, former president of University of North Carolina. Graham, who had been appointed by Governor Kerr Scott to fill the seat after the 1949 death of J. Melville Broughton, led in the first primary but was defeated by Smith in a second primary. As North Carolina’s Democratic nominee, Smith won the office and held it until his death.

     Smith held a variety of other roles during his professional career. He was president of the North Carolina Bar Association from 1941 to 1942, president of the American Bar Association from 1945 to 1946, and president of International Association of Insurance Counsel from 1941 to 1943. In 1946, he was elected chairman of the board of trustees of Duke University. That same year, he represented the United States as an observer at the Nuremberg war trials. He was also on the President’s Amnesty Board in 1947 and later served as a United States delegate to the Interparliamentary Union in Turkey and Switzerland. He was married to Anna Lee in 1919. They had four children. Willis Smith died at the naval hospital in Bethesda, Maryland on June 26, 1953. He was buried in Oakwood Cemetery in Raleigh.


References:
William S. Powell, ed., Dictionary of North Carolina Biography, V, 392—sketch by Robert Byrd
Julian M. Pleasants, Frank Porter Graham and the 1950 Senate Race in North Carolina (1990)
Biographical Directory of the United States Congress online: http://bioguide.congress.gov/scripts/biodisplay.pl?index=S000639


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north carolina highway historical marker program


Willis Smith, 1887-1953

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