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The oldest of seven children in Brownsville, Tennessee, Dr. Smitherman started her education in a one-room schoolhouse. Her family moved from the rural south to the urban north as part of the Great African American migration, first living in Chicago for a few years and then moving to Detroit. Dr. Smitherman studied at and graduated from Detroit's Cass Technical High School. Dr. Smitherman continued her education, earning a B.A. and M.A. in English and Latin from Wayne State University and a Ph.D in English, with a specialization in sociolinguistics and education, from the University of Michigan.
In addition to working at Michigan State University in the Department of English and co-founding MSU's African American and African Studies, Dr. Smitherman has been active in advocating for African American children's education.
In the late 1970s, Dr. Smitherman worked as an expert witness and advocate in the federal court case, Martin Luther King Junior Elementary School Children et al. v. Ann Arbor School District. A key claim in the Ann Arbor decision recognized Black English as a language and established that the Ann Arbor School District violated federal statutory law because it failed to take into account this home language in the provision of education. The judge ordered the school district to find a way to identify Black English speakers in the schools and to "use that knowledge in teaching such students how to read standard English".
In 1991, Dr. Smitherman, Dr. Clifford Watson, and many Detroit parents established the Malcolm X Academy, an Afro-centric predominantly male PreK-8 school within the Detroit Public Schools. It was the first public Afro-centric elementary school in the country.
Awards and achievements
- Educational Press Association Award for Excellence in Educational Journalism for her English Journal column, "Soul N Style"
- 1999 CCCC Exemplar Award
- 2001 NCTE David H. Russell Research Award for Talkin That Talk: Language, Culture and Education in African America
- 2005, NCTE James R. Squire Award (only the tenth recipient of this Award, established in 1967 to recognize a scholar who has had a “transforming influence” and has made a “lasting intellectual contribution” to the field of English Studies)
- Word from the Mother: Language and African Americans (2006)
- Black Linguistics: Language, Society and Politics in Africa and the Americas (co-editor, 2003)
- "Language and Democracy in the United States of America and South Africa", in Language and Institutions in Africa (eds., Makoni and Kamwangamalu, 2001)
- Talkin That Talk: Language, Culture and Education in African America (2000)
- Black Talk: Words and Phrases from the Hood to the Amen Corner (1994, 2000)
- "CCCC’s Role in the Struggle for Language Rights", College Composition and Communication (February, 1999)
- Talkin and Testifyin: The Language of Black America (1977, 1986)
- "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2011-07-20. Retrieved 2011-02-20.
- Prof. Smitherman's website Archived May 29, 2010, at the Wayback Machine.
- "MARTIN LUTHER KING JR., ETC. v. ANN ARBOR SCH. DIST. | Leagle.com". www.leagle.com. Retrieved 2016-03-19.
- Flood, J., Jensen, J., Lapp, D., Squire, J. (1991). Handbook of research on teaching the English language arts. New York, NY: Macmillan Publishing Company.