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Column: Human rights director leaves mark during 28 years

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The city of Columbus was the first in Indiana to form a Human Rights Commission back in 1962.

That was two years before passage of the U.S. Civil Rights Act of 1964, landmark legislation that banned discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin.

Today, it is one of just four Indiana cities whose human rights rules and regulations specifically address discrimination based on sexual orientation — in addition to other categories of people that expect fair treatment in matters of employment, housing, education and public accommodation.

“We’re Columbus, and we aim higher,” proclaimed Mayor Kristen Brown in remarks during Wednesday night’s Human Rights Commission dinner.

For more than half of the 52 years that the city Human Rights Commission has existed, Lorraine Smith has been deeply involved in local efforts to protect people’s rights while Columbus built its identity as a welcoming community.

But as of July 1, Smith will retire from her position as director of the city’s Human Rights Commission, ending 28 years of public service.

Retirement will allow Smith to spend more time with her husband of 39 years, Charles, and other family members. She will be replaced by deputy director Aida Ramirez.

Smith, 58, announced her news during the commission’s annual meeting at The Commons, which drew a record and near-capacity 436 registered guests, beating the previous year’s record of 363 attendees.

As with other things, Smith had a strong hand in that 20 percent attendance increase, too.

While serving 24 years as deputy director for the commission, Smith initiated, wrote and secured grants — as well as coordinated the commission’s Oral History Project, which documented the stories of community members who witnessed and participated in the city’s own civil rights movement.

The project’s video, “Lifting Up a Voice ... ,” and its companion guide were recognized as one of the best practices in diversity by the state Civil Rights Commission.

Those accolades were part of a tribute delivered during the dinner by Brown, who proclaimed Wednesday as Lorraine Smith Day in the city.

Brown noted that Smith in 2011 became the city’s first African-American department head as human rights commission director. And in the past two years, she helped guide the Mayor’s Advisory Council on Disability and Accessibility, “creating a greater awareness and understanding in our community about the issues facing people with disabilities.”

Smith’s impact on the city and its people includes serving on the Heritage Fund Board, including four years on the Lilly Scholarship Selection Committee; serving on the NAACP Board and being a founding member of the African American Fund of Bartholomew County.

“Lorraine is a champion of human rights, a dedicated public servant,” Brown told Wednesday’s audience. “Through her passion for civil rights and under her leadership, the Human Rights Commission, the city of Columbus and our community have benefited from Lorraine’s substantial, innovative and noteworthy efforts in advancing the goal of making Columbus a welcoming community for all people.”

Quoting longtime Cummins Chairman J. Irwin Miller, Smith repeated the approach of how Columbus has built its national reputation: “We work on one problem, and then we go on to the next.”

Even after she retires, Smith said: “I still want to find ways to give back and serve.”

Gil Palmer, who worked closely with Smith as he presided over the Human Rights Commission the past 20 years as chairman, was among those to echo praise for her.

In closing comments for the dinner, he challenged others to step up and serve.

“We are each responsible for our own legacy,” Palmer said. “What do you want your legacy to be?”

Tom Jekel is editor of The Republic. His column appears each Sunday. You may reach him by phone at 379-5665 or by email at

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