“Defeating Domestic Violence, Drug Policies and a Destructive Justice System”

Monday, November 1, 2010

Sharing her story of pain and struggle, then deliverance and triumph, Kemba Smith stared into the eyes of more than 1,000 attendees during an event in recognition of Domestic Violence Month, held recently at SC State University.

“Never in a million years did I think I would find myself in an abusive relationship.  That’s not what I was raised around.  I didn’t see my father hit my mother,” tells Smith. Throughout her message, Smith echoed reminders to SC State students that their focus should be on their education and making the right choices, not obtaining fast money, engaging in the wrong relationships or trying to ‘fit in.’

Kemba Smith“I often tell young people you should do you. Forget about what everyone else is doing, what everyone else has on their back.  You don’t need to compare yourself to other people.  You need to understand that right now your priority is your education.”

Entering Hampton University with much insecurity including low self-esteem, Smith found herself trying to ‘fit in’ and thus made several wrong choices. “When I got into college, I started associating with certain people that did certain things and eventually, because I hung around them all of the time and that’s what they did, I decided I was going to try it,” she says.

One of those bad associations was her boyfriend, Peter Hall, a major figure in a $4 million crack cocaine ring. Smith told of the highs and lows of this relationship and how she initially deemed it as one filled with pride. “For once, while I was at Hampton, I was feeling good about myself and I thought I was the woman because everyone was interested in me and what I was doing with this particular person.” 

It wasn’t too long afterward though that she would realize the true reality of her relationship. Describing her first violent encounter, Smith admits she thought she would lose her life. “I just knew that my parents were going to read about me in the Philadelphia newspaper the next morning-‘Hampton University student gets killed in hotel room.’ After he beat me I was scared to death to move.  Blood vessels had popped in my face and the inside of my eyes were bleeding,” recalls Smith. 

Too embarrassed to be seen in public, Smith missed several days of class.  As time went on, she says she stopped listening to her inner voice and started listening to Hall more and more. “Young ladies, understand that if a man puts his hands on you, calls you out of your name, or treats you disrespectfully, you need to make sure you give him the boot immediately.  Don’t listen to I’m sorry or it won’t ever happen again.”

Toward the end of her turbulent three-year relationship, Smith says her love quickly turned into fear.  After informing her that he killed his best friend, Hall was on the run from the authorities. Although Smith was no longer with him physically at the time, Hall still had psychological and emotional control of her. “Even though he wasn’t allowed to talk to me, I knew he could put his hands on me if he really wanted to. I also knew he would try to contact me and intimidate me into going with him. My relationship turned into me feeling like I had to protect myself and my parents,” says Smith.

Traveling from state to state with Hall, Smith often found herself not knowing where she was going to lay her head.   Then came the turning point.  “I finally gained some courage and I felt as if I needed to leave him because I found out I was pregnant with my son. I knew I wanted a normal lifestyle for the child I had living inside of me. Ultimately, I mentioned to Peter how I wanted to go back home, and I thank God for him giving Peter the heart to realize I had to go home too.”

Upon arriving in Richmond, Va., Smith was told if she turned herself in to authorities, she would be released on bond; rather, she was sentenced to 24.5 years in prison. She was found guilty of conspiracy to distribute crack, money laundering, and making false statements to the FBI, although she never handled, used or sold drugs.  Refusing to accept the reality of carrying out a 24.5 year sentence and not being able to see her son, whom she gave birth to while in prison, until he was a grown man, Smith began to take action.  She and her parents began writing letters and reaching out to several organizations.  Their efforts paid off when, on December 22, 2000, 6.5 years after the start of her sentence, Smith was granted clemency from former President Bill Clinton.

“Even though God opened the doors for me, there are countless other young women that deserve to come home too, so I held on to this. It’s been my commitment that ever since I’ve been released that I was going to keep telling my story for you all so you can make better choices,” Smith advised. “I also have to keep putting a human face on this issue.  Most people think that with these particular laws, with someone being locked up, they are hard core monsters.  Understand if you go into a prison, you will see somebody who mirrors you identically but they just made some poor choices and got caught.”

Jasmaine Ravenell, a sophomore professional English major at SC State, says she found Smith’s message to be one of value and much needed in the college environment. “Kemba’s message is the reality of what most college girls go through that some people sugarcoat.  She didn’t leave out anything and showed another side of what people need to see right now,” says Ravenell.  “I thank her for providing her insight on what she has gone through.  I wish there was a way to tell all girls on campus to focus on school, because in the end you walk across that stage by yourself.  There is not going to be a guy holding your hand walking across the stage.” 

Concluding her message, Smith advised, “Don’t allow yourselves to be a victim or a prison number.  It was a choice I made while at Hampton University.  Make sure you are making healthy choices, doing what you need to do now while you are here at South Carolina State [University].”