Profiles in Courage: The Family Ties of an MSK Doctor to the Protests That Helped End Segregation


Outside, it is a cold and blustery February day in New York City, not far from the East River.

But indoors on Floor M7 of Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, every aspect of the environment is tightly controlled. This floor is a state-of-the art facility devoted to people undergoing bone marrow transplants and receiving cutting-edge treatments, such as CAR T cell therapy.

Doing rounds on the floor is Melody Smith. As a physician-scientist, she cares for people with blood cancers and conducts research on cellular therapies that essentially re-engineer a person’s own immune cells to seek out and destroy cancer cells.

But as she checks her patients, they are unaware that Dr. Smith is not just a world-class hematologic oncologist. She is also a living link to pivotal events in American history, and woven into her family’s personal story are acts of courage that helped shape the country for the better by standing up to America at its worst.

Not From Around Here

Dr. Smith first learned about her family’s history growing up in Tyler, a small city in East Texas. She explains, “My family definitely stood out in Tyler. My father is from Trinidad and Tobago, and my mom was raised in Brooklyn.”

“As outsiders,” she says, “my parents’ worldview wasn’t circumscribed by the black and white definitions that describe the town.”

Her parents defied convention and moved their family to the predominantly white South Side. They wanted the best schools for their growing family. Dr. Smith explains that, “Growing up, my six siblings and I were often the only Black students in our classes, or one of a handful. I learned how to be comfortable in spaces where there aren’t people who look like me. It’s a different experience, always being an outsider.”

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The Greensboro Four

But if being a trailblazer could sometimes be painful, Dr. Smith learned it could also be a source of great pride. As a child, Dr. Smith’s maternal grandmother told her about Joseph McNeil, a cousin on her mother’s side. On February 1, 1960, he and three other Black freshmen at the Agricultural and Technical College of North Carolina shopped at the Woolworth’s department store in Greensboro and then sat down on stools at the lunch counter. The stools were reserved exclusively for white customers.

The four young men — Franklin McCain, Ezell Blair, Jr. (who later changed his name to Jibreel Khazan), David Richmond, and Mr. McNeil — asked to be served. They were refused. Instead of leaving, they sat quietly, even as a police officer walked behind them, thumping his night stick in his hand. The four young men stayed until the store closed.

More protestors showed up at the store over the next few days, garnering press attention and inspiring sit-downs at other segregated businesses across the country. After months of protests, many lunch counters and other facilities — including Woolworth’s — agreed to serve all customers.

The four young men who started the movement at the Woolworth’s lunch counter came to be known as the “Greensboro Four.” Today, their protest is celebrated as a critical moment in ending segregation.

For Dr. Smith, the lessons are deeply personal. “When I think about what the Greensboro Four did, it shows me what a huge impact one person or a small group can make.” The lesson, she says, “is if something is not right, make your voice heard and do it in the right way, and do it knowing that it may take time for change to happen — you must be persistent.”

When I think about what the Greensboro Four did, it shows me what a huge impact one person or a small group can make.
Melody Smith hematologic oncologist
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They Shot Out the Windows

However, the injustices “Cousin Joe” protested are still close to the surface. When Dr. Smith was young, her parents moved from one neighborhood on Tyler’s South Side to another neighborhood, which had been exclusively white. “One morning when I was in sixth grade, we went outside to drive to school. All the windows of our parents’ minivan had been shot out with a BB gun. We were being warned that we weren’t welcome.”

Dr. Smith says, “My Mother kept her composure, even though this was incredibly shocking.” And her parents refused to be intimidated. “They raised us in such a way that we knew we weren’t limited the way some people wanted to limit us.” She explains, “For instance, my parents were very intentional in teaching us about Black history. They would assign us books to read and documentaries to watch because we weren’t hearing about this in school.”

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Celebrating Justice

Those lessons came full circle in early February 2020 — right before the COVID-19 pandemic struck — when the International Civil Rights Museum in Greensboro celebrated the 60th anniversary of the Greensboro Four protest.

Housed in the former Woolworth’s building where the sit-in began, the museum’s celebration featured Mr. McNeil, Dr. Smith, and much of her extended family as well as the other surviving member of the Greensboro Four and luminaries including Danny Glover, Jesse Jackson, and many others.

For Dr. Smith and her family, the celebration was a moment to reflect on their personal contributions to American history and the enormous importance of the Black experience in shaping the country.

Dr. Smith explains, “The beautiful thing is that Black history is American history. Think how different things would be if people of color hadn’t been involved in science, law, the arts, political activism, and so many other things.” She concludes, “We really should be thankful to those individuals who decided to step out and be bold.”

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