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Racism Denied Her A Job More Than 60 Years Ago. What Does An Apology Today Mean?

Shirlee Smith wears a bright turquoise Nike t-shirt and a colorful scarf in her hair.
Shirlee Smith, in a screen shot from her recent "Parenting in Crazy Times" video chat with Cedars Sinai staff.
(Screen shot)
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It’s been a while since I was 19 years old and a new mom, sitting in the Cedars of Lebanon hospital lobby waiting to sign my employment papers, when the receptionist called me to her desk and told me, “We don’t hire colored girls to work on our switchboard.”

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That was then. That was 1956.

I didn’t know I was a colored girl, and furthermore, my parents never told me about racial inequities, so the meaning and depth of what had happened to me was beyond my ability to comprehend.

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Shirlee Smith in 1955.
Shirlee at age 18 in 1955.
(Courtesy of Shirlee Smith)

This was Los Angeles 65 years ago. This was my parents’ promised land. As youngsters, they had each come west with their mothers, escaping the horrors that were forced upon Negroes who lived below the Mason Dixon line.

My parents didn’t teach me who I was. So, all I knew was I didn’t have the job the telephone chief operator had hired me for — albeit by telephone, sight unseen — that was to start the upcoming Monday.

Fired on a Friday, only 3 days before starting work on Monday.

That was then: 1956.

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It's Now 2021 — And?

Cedars of Lebanon is now Cedars-Sinai, and 60-plus years have brought about some changes.

I heard from them last summer, shortly after someone there had read my Race In LA essay about the 1956 incident that was published here in LAist.

They wanted to apologize to me.

View of the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. (Gabriel Bouys/AFP via Getty Images)
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I spoke with Andy Ortiz, Senior Vice President of Human Resources. He told me they wanted to right that old act of discrimination.

“Yeah, sure, “ I thought, when I first heard from him.

That old discrimination should, Ortiz told me, bow to the power of diversity and inclusion.

“Uh, huh,” I suspiciously responded, to what sounded like “good talk” — no longer being an unaware teenager not knowing how racist America and white corporations behave.

Suspicions guiding my every thought, I listened as Ortiz continued to talk the good talk during our telephone conversation.

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That old expression “talk is cheap” kept bubbling in my head throughout our entire discussion. “Put your money where your mouth is” was another of my unspoken sentiments. But I kept my thoughts to myself, as I wanted to see exactly where he was headed.

It took a few months, but Ortiz set up and conducted a Zoom meeting that included myself and three members of my support team: contract negotiator, business advisor and content and communications director, all people who work with me. The four of us joined the meeting with members of Cedars’ Diversity and Inclusion staff.

“Now what?” I wondered to myself. What’s the offer? What’s the demand?

We talked about inclusion, diversity, and parenting — my specialty.

One smart-mouth member of my team, in our own private follow-up Zoom session afterward, thought maybe they should have a building named for the “colored girl” who didn’t get to work the switchboard.

Another of my smart-mouth supporters said he wanted the forty acres and the mule our ancestors were supposed to get after emancipation.

Get real!

A sign at a protest in front of City Hall reads "Racism- The Real Pandemic."
A sign at a protest in front of L.A. City Hall.
(Chava Sanchez/LAist)

During this time of social upheaval in America, there’s much to be said for what an entity such as Cedars-Sinai could initiate to, in some way, work toward eradicating the racism that plagues America as much now in 2021 as it did back then, in 1956.

Putting aside my suspicions — and knowing I wasn’t gonna get a mule or 40 acres — I grudgingly made a decision: Why not work with Cedars-Sinai in support of their Diversity, Inclusion and Health Equity Initiatives program?

A Baby Step

Well, it’s been months in the making, but since that initial contact, Cedars has moved in the direction of giving their apology some teeth. Baby ones, I would say. No molars to chew the heavy stuff, but they offered me something beyond an apology, and that something utilizes skills I learned in the years after they gave me the boot.

Shirlee Smith, right, with two of her children and a neighbor's child (far left) in 1961.
Shirlee Smith, right, with two of her children and a neighbor's child (far left) in 1961.
(Courtesy of Shirlee Smith)

Thankfully, I didn’t get that switchboard job, as instead, I’ve dedicated my life as a single parent to raising my children to become successful adults, and combining that experience with my education. In 1974, I graduated from UCLA with the honor of Departmental Scholar in Sociology with an emphasis on the family.

Shirlee Smith's son, Paul Marvin Smith, who died at age 21 in a car accident.
Shirlee's son, Paul Marvin Smith, who died at age 21 in a car accident.
(Courtesy of Shirlee Smith)

I no longer have the mindset of that 19-year-old new mom sitting in the hospital lobby expecting to sign employment papers. (That child is now in her 60s and my count of children, now grown into adulthood, is a total of five.)

As a foster parent as well, I’ve cared for more than a dozen newborns. I’ve chaired the L.A. County Adoptions Commission and have served on the county’s Commission for Children and Families.

In 1997 I established a non-profit organization, Talk About Parenting with Shirlee Smith, with a mission statement to work with parents in helping them raise children to become successful adults.

Cedars Sinai took that into account and contracted with me as a parenting consultant for a 60-minute interview with their Director of Diversity and Inclusion as part of their monthly staff education series.

The resulting interview, “Parenting in Crazy Times,” addressed the staggering needs parents face in helping their children through these days of a pandemic, civil unrest, and the racial reckoning our country faces.

It is a small baby tooth headed, perhaps, in the right direction — molars, jaw and wisdom teeth may come later.

Does it even matter that I was fired before I was hired back in 1956, when we compare that act of discrimination to the gross atrocities committed against African Americans and people of color on a regular basis?

How can apologies like the one I was offered make a true difference?

Let’s get real!

The double standard of life in racist America has been on trial. America must be found guilty. And I suspect every major corporation — minor ones also — see us all as ‘“colored girls and colored boys,” because White America refuses to see us as equals.

In the grand scheme of things, as we address the disturbing bigger picture of American racism, perhaps Cedars' baby-teeth apology can be an impetus for other institutions to grow molars and other jaw teeth — some real teeth — to chew through this disturbing and too often deadly dilemma the country has become mired in.