Etymologically, Smith is the working class scion of several Northern European declensions: Old English, Old High German, Middle Dutch, etc. There's Swedish and Danish smed and Icelandic smiður, still used in the general sense we attribute as the original: craftsman or skilled worker in metal, wood or other materials. With the word blackmsith, denoting those who work with iron or steel, the black is thought to refer to the firescale, or firestain — the layer of oxides that forms on the surface of metal when heated.
And as for black Smiths, in the US anyway (where it is the third most common surname amongst black Americans, according to a 2000 census), it is widely understood that the appellation derives from that imposed by slave owning families. In a recently published historical novel, The Abduction of Smith and Smith, by Rashad Harrison:
Maybe it was the way she didn't take his new name, Freeman, and held onto her slave name, Smith. Titus said it was because of Jupiter, and he was right, partly. All the people she knew and loved were called Smith. Most of them she would never see again. Yes, she was no longer in bondage, but she did not want to see that chain to be broken. And she liked that when she thought of Smith work came to mind—work on a higher plane than the toils of slavery. Work that was respected: there was skill and craft, heat and hammer in it. She considered playing with the spelling: maybe a silent "e" at the end, something to distinguish her from all the other unrelated Smiths. For all of Titus' symbolic name changing, she thought it was tragically ironic that he would call himself Freeman in a country where he still was not truly free.
The historian Mary Thompson has countered that "it is a myth that most enslaved blacks bore the last name of their owner". This from an article in (I know) the Daily Mail, in which a black Washington, Jesse, examines why ninety percent of US residents bearing his surname are black (it topped the list in that same 2000 census category). Jesse Washington's claim is that his surname was frequently adopted as a synonym for freedom and emancipation, a version of history that is intriguing while its implications are discomforting. From Up from Slavery, Booker T. Washington's autobiography:
From the time when I could remember anything, I had been called simply "Booker." Before going to school it had never occurred to me that it was needful or appropriate to have an additional name. When I heard the school-roll called, I noticed that all of the children had at least two names, and some of them indulged in what seemed to me the extravagance of having three. I was in deep perplexity, because I knew that the teacher would demand of me at least two names, and I had only one. By the time the occasion came for the enrolling of my name, an idea occurred to me which I thought would make me equal to the situation; and so, when the teacher asked me what my full name was, I calmly told him "Booker Washington," as if I had been called by that name all my life; and by that name I have since been known. Later in my life I found that my mother had given me the name of "Booker Taliaferro" soon after I was born, but in some way that part of my name seemed to disappear and for a long while was forgotten, but as soon as I found out about it I revived it, and made my full name "Booker Taliaferro Washington." I think there are not many men in our country who have had the privilege of naming themselves in the way that I have.
The black American theorist Molefi Kete Asanti was born Arthur Lee Smith, Jr. He changed it while visiting the University of Ghana in 1973. He was subsequently appointed the head of communications at SUNY Buffalo, at the age of 30. Asanti may be best known for popularising the term Afrocentricity, which he appropriated from the sociologist and civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois. In 1980, Asanti published Afrocentricity: The Theory of Social Change. As he has explained in a recent interview with Yoshitake Miike:
"I chose the term Afrocentricity to emphasize the fact that African people had been moved off of terms for the past five hundred years. In other words, Africans were not simply removed from Africa to the Americas, but Africans were separated from philosophies, languages, religions, myths, and cultures. Separations are violent and are often accompanied with numerous changes in individuals and groups. Finding a way to relocate or to reorient our thinking was essential to the presentation of African cultural reality. In fact, without such a reorientation, Africans have nothing to bring to the table of humanity but the experiences of Europeans, those who initially moved Africans off of social, cultural, and psychological terms."
The year before Asanti changed his name, Apollo 17 launched from the Kennedy Space Center. In the VIP area was a centenarian called Charlie Smith, who claimed to be the oldest in the US though lots of probing into his records has proved this to be of dubious veracity. "Th' ain't nobody goin' t' no moon. Me, you, or anybody else", Smith cracked to the reporters. And, after the launch: "I see they goin' somewhere, but that don't mean nothin'." Smith, also known as Mitchell Watkins, claimed to have been born in 1842 in Liberia, and brought to the US at 12 where he was sold to a Texas rancher in New Orleans. In 1967, Time ran an article describing the "spry ex-slave" as running a small soda and candy shop, where he "thrives on raw sausages, crackers, 7UP, and telling people how old he is". Out of patriotism or uncertainty, according to Time, he celebrated his birthday on the 4th of July. In 1978, his highly embellished life story was told in a 90-minute episode of the PBS series 'Visions' entitled "Charlie Smith and the Fritter Tree". In it, Smith arrives to America in 1854, following the promise of fritter trees. After being tricked into and escaping from slavery, he heads west, where he rides alongside Jesse James and chases Billy the Kid. Smith took his tall tale to the grave; in Barstow, Polk County, Florida, it is written in stone: 'America's Oldest Man'.