Home Health & Education Womens’ History Month: Remembering Dr. Alice Smith Risby, “Nashville’s Coretta”

Womens’ History Month: Remembering Dr. Alice Smith Risby, “Nashville’s Coretta”

by Cass Teague
Seated (l-r): Rev. Kelly Miller Smith, Sr., Joy Ardelia Smith, Alice Clark Smith Sitting on the floor (l-r): Kelly Miller Smith, Jr., Valerie Lin Smith, Adena Modesta Smith

Dr. Alice Clark Smith Risby, a beacon of warmth and love in our community, departed this world on Sunday, January 7, 2024. Over the course of a long and wonderful life, while married to the Rev. Kelly Miller Smith, Sr., she was the First Lady of the First Baptist Church, Capitol Hill, a significant factor in the Nashville Civil Rights Movement. It was there that the sit-in students were drilled in non-violent resistance, that the Freedom Riders rallied, and that the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. preached when he visited Nashville to “get inspiration” as he famously said.

She graced us with her presence for a remarkable 94 years, leaving an indelible mark on the hearts of all who were fortunate enough to know her. Alice’s journey began in Yazoo County, Mississippi. Born on November 11, 1929 as the second child to her parents, James Vardaman and Linnie Mae Clark. The family migrated to Jackson, Mississippi, where she grew up with two brothers and a sister. After her parents divorced, her father married Janie Mae Wingo, and Alice welcomed another sister and four more brothers into her family. Alice accepted Christ at an early age and her lifelong love for music was nurtured by playing piano for churches in Jackson.

In 1950 she married a young preacher, Kelly Miller Smith, and they relocated to Nashville, Tennessee when he was called to pastor The First (Colored) Baptist Church in 1951. To this marriage four children were born: Joy Ardelia, Adena Modesta, Kelly Miller Jr., and Valerie Lin. A few years later, Dorothy Jean Springfield joined the family as the kids’ big sister. After 34 years of marriage, Kelly Miller Smith Sr. passed away on June 3, 1984. After a brief marriage to John Key, she married Edward Risby Sr. in June 2005, to whom she was married until his passing on August 15, 2017.

Standing (l-r): Adena Modesta Smith, Joy Ardelia Smith, Valerie Lin Smith Seated (l-r): Kelly Miller Smith, Jr., Alice Clark Smith, Rev. Kelly Miller Smith, Sr.

Alice received academic honors as Valedictorian, at both Tougaloo High School and Tougaloo College. She held the title of Miss Tougaloo College, where she became a member of the Gamma Psi Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. She earned her Masters in Science and Doctorate in Education from Tennessee State University. Her passion for education and dedication led her to become a faculty member at TSU for nearly four decades in the Department of Biological Sciences.

Always active and vibrant, Alice completed a full marathon (26.2 miles) at the age of 70 and she continued to participate in several half-marathons thereafter. Her green thumb and love for gardening were evident in the blooming African Violets that adorned her home along with her thriving flower and vegetable gardens, a testament to her nurturing spirit. She traveled the world, with her last grand adventure being a Mediterranean cruise in celebration of her 90th birthday, with her children, family, and friends.

A devoted member of First Baptist Church Capitol Hill for over seventy years, she participated in the Matrons Circle and other organizations, and sang in various choirs. In 2010 her son, Kelly Miller Smith Jr. became pastor of the church, and served until his retirement in December, 2023. Her legacy includes co-founding the Kelly Miller Smith Center Against Abusive Behavior and serving on the board of the Kelly Miller Smith Towers.

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