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Kay Smith Yount has fought for workers’ rights, affordable housing

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By Roslyn Friedman, John Bange, and Dan Yount

Kay Smith Yount. Photo provided

Katherine “Kay’’ Smith Yount has spent her life fighting for workers’ rights and affordable home ownership in the Cincinnati area, and, now retired, continues to work in organizations that help the underserved.

The Woman’s Fund of The Greater Cincinnati Foundation in a 2001 publication Life Lessons At Her Table recognized 26 local women of achievement, including Smith Yount, who was sponsored by The Procter & Gamble Fund. In the article, she provides this wisdom: “Don’t forget where you came from.’’ “You earn your respect through sensitivity, loyalty and compassion for others.’’ “Speak out against injustice and discrimination. It’s the right thing to do.’’

The granddaughter of a slave and daughter of a sharecropper, Smith Yount is the fifth of 17 children in a family that lived in Jim Crow rural Egypt, Mississippi, in the northeast corner of the state. Her first job was at the age of nine picking cotton alongside her father for $2 a day.

“My daddy made the bed we slept on and the chairs we sat on,’’ she said. My mother made our quilts, and clothes. And we grew our own food.’’

She says those memories are as vivid as the beating an uncle suffered from the Ku Klux Klan.

“My parents taught us the value of hard work, dedication, and loyalty to one another,’’ she said.

Rev. Melvin Hardin, the president of the Ministerial Institute and College in nearby West Point, Mississippi, was her escape from the town that had a stoplight, post office, cotton gin, general store and a church. He offered her a scholarship to a high school department at the college and later invited her to join his family when they relocated to the West End in Cincinnati, where she completed her high school education at Our Lady of Mercy.

“It was painful breaking away from our strong family bond, but I was always a dreamer, and I saw this as an opportunity,’’ she said.

At 16, and against all odds, she set out to find a job in Cincinnati, going from store to store in the West End. Being turned down again and again, she was finally hired at West End Hardware owned by the Flax family who were refugees from Nazi-controlled Belgium. Pola Flax, the matriarch, was very encouraging to her with advice and opportunities about work and finance, especially in saving and investing in real estate…advice she followed and prospered by. Their daughter Stephanie Marks remains one of her best friends.

She later attended Wilberforce and Xavier University, and graduated from the Atheneaum Lay Pastoral Ministry Program.

Smith Yount was the first African American production supervisor for Fechheimer Brothers Garment Co. where she became the first African American president of the International Garment Workers of America Union local 224. Working with the Cincinnati NAACP Branch, she initiated the desegregation of the sewing rooms and restrooms at Fechheimer Brothers.

Leaving Fechheimer Brothers in 1987 after 30 years there, Smith Yount returned to her roots in the West End as executive director of Community Land Cooperative of Cincinnati (CLCC), which is a privately funded nonprofit founded in 1980 by the West End Alliance of Churches and Ministries and the Dominican Sisters of the Sick and Poor, including Dominican Sr. Barbara Wheeler, Notre Dame Sr. Judy Tensing, and Rev. Maurice McCrackin. CLCC helps low-income people in the community, especially single mothers, and others displaced by urban renewal and speculation become first generation homeowners.

“I felt I could be leader and role model, and I wanted to give some of what I had back to the community,’’ she said when she took the position.

When she became the cooperative’s executive director in 1987 the organization’s property inventory was about 20 houses; when she retired in 2003 she was managing about 60 houses that had been improved by the co-op. She literally resurrected the cooperative, getting it on firm financial footing and calling on people and corporations to literally roll up their shirtsleeves and get involved. Under her leadership, CLCC instituted the first transferal of deeds to homeowners, established the first development team of prominent Cincinnati business leaders, and initiated the first capital campaign, raising $600,000.

Add to that her deep religious and moral values, she once said, “I see the co-op as my ministry.’’

“When Kay came on board, the organization was on its last legs, going downhill financially, said Frank Gudorf, a corporate lawyer she recruited for the Board. “But with her no-nonsense, straight shooter personality, Kay was able to meet the challenges and get steamed at those who questioned her decisions.’’

She and Gudorf managed to change legislation in the Ohio Assembly that separates land from houses in order to avoid gentrification. Overcoming the inability to secure legal documentation to separate land and building became the underlying concept of the co-op and a perquisite for deed transferal.

Smith Yount made CLCC a model for land trusts around the country, giving 100 workshops at conferences in 28 states, and she hosted the 1993 National Land Trust Conference in Cincinnati. She continues working with CLCC as a member of its Development Committee.

Rev. Waylon Melton, former Board chair, said Smith’s strength was her ability to energize people through her infectious optimism and can-do attitude.

Chemed Corp. Vice President Tom Westerfield, whom Smith recruited for the CLCC Board, said, ”Kay was the conduit for helping Whites to better understand the nature of the West End. Because of her, I got White people to volunteer their fund-raising services and their money.’’ Chemed itself made an unprecedented $40,000 annual contribution to CLCC.

“Kay was the glue that held CLCC together,’’ said Jim Grady, a Realtor and volunteer.

With the help of the Greater Cincinnati Foundation, Smith Yount organized Summertime Youth Programs for children in the West End to annually visit a farm in Milford.

Currently, Smith Yount is a member of the Woman’s City Club of Cincinnati, on the board of Madisonville Housing, and a volunteer for SCORE and author of a SCORE column in The Cincinnati Herald. For many years, she has served on the Board of the Cincinnati Arts Consortium in the West End, and continues in that work as a member of the committee that organizes the annual King Legacy Breakfast Awards at the Freedom Center on Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s January holiday. She served on the Board of Directors of Marva Collins College Preparatory School founded in Cincinnati by Dr. Cleaster Mimms. She also served on the Board of Directors of AIDS Volunteers of Cincinnati.

She is an active member of St. Anthony Catholic Church in Madisonville.

In 2014, Smith Yount was one of the “stars’’ in the Dancing for the Stars event that benefits the Cincinnati Arts Association Overture Awards’ scholarship program. She said she was terrified, but also thrilled, to participate with the other participants who were, to put it mildly, considerably younger.

As a member of the International Visitors Council Exchange, Smith Yount has opened her home to international students and others. She has taken students from around the world, including Europe, Russia, Japan, India, Central America and South America (Bolivia, Brazil, Argentina), into her home while they were studying in this country. Her travels include visiting some of those students in their homes in Bolivia and Costa Rica, and in Europe.

“I love to open my home to people from other countries,’’ she said. “It’s a rare opportunity to learn and share. And I feel that visitors to Cincinnati are not exposed to African American culture.’’

In 1997, Smith Yount hosted a multi-cultural group at her Amberely Village Home for a CommUNITY program sponsored by the Summit on Racism to discuss race relations in the Tristate following an outbreak of racial incidents in Cincinnati.

She and her late husband of 35 years, James E. Smith, who was a senior environmental specialist for FERMCO, annually hosted backyard parties that that were attended by people from various races, beliefs, and sexual orientations. Allen Howard, writing about the events in the Cincinnati Enquirer, called them “melting pot’’ parties.

The couple owned and operated a real estate investment business for a number of years, at one time owning eight fourplex apartment buildings in Roselawn.

Mr. Smith, in writing about Kay, whom he called “Babe,’’ said when he met her in 1960, she was a single parent raising three young sons. “She had to work three jobs to maintain her family’s financial independence, but she still found time to champion the underdog on all three jobs, with her neighbors, and within her church,’’ he wrote.

Recently, Smith Yount joined the century-old Cincinnati Woman’s Club as its first African American member, serving on the organization’s Board of Directors and as vice-chair of the Hospitality Committee and as a member of the Membership Committee.

Honors include the third annual City of God Award, presented by the New York National Pastoral Life Center in 1997, and the Outstanding Achievement Award in 2014 presented by the Cincinnati Women’s Political Caucus for advancing the status of women and others in the community. She is a former member of the National Assembly of Religious Women, based in Chicago, and is listed in the publication of World Who’s Who of Women.

She is married to Dan Yount, editor-in-chief of The Cincinnati Herald, and has two sons, Michael Craig of the Washington, D.C., area and Gary Craig of Cincinnati, a stepdaughter, Akilah Yount Nsofor of Baltimore; steps sons Jordan Yount of Columbia, Mo., Greg Yount of New Hampshire, and Mark Yount of Charlotte, N.C.; and five grandchildren. A third son, Ronald Craig, is deceased.

Smith Yount had encouraged six of her siblings and their families to move to Cincinnati, and five are still living here.

The Woman’s City Club of Cincinnati, a 100-year-old civic activist organization, in 2015 honored their member Smith Yount as one of their outstanding  “feisty’’ women, along with other honorees Carol Joy Haupt, Susan Noonan, and Dr. Catherine Roma.

WCC member Jane Anderson, who introduced Smith Yount during the “Fiesty Women’’ ceremony, said that although she had worked beside her for many years she did not know how much Smith Yount has contributed to Cincinnati and its people.

“Kay has a unique ability for bringing people together. She opened her home for dinner parties, inviting friends from Russia, Cuba, Costa Rica, India and elsewhere; thus providing a space for people of varying backgrounds and cultures to meet and become aware of there common enjoyment of being together. Kay has been an advocate for helping the underprivileged and underserved move toward

homeownership and create freedom for themselves. Kay does not brag or boast about herself or her accomplishments; she simply does what has to be done.’’

The Woman’s Fund in recognizing Smith Yount described her as “a leader in empowering others in all aspects of their lives. She knows how it works. She’s been there…’

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