Wm. Lee Smallwood, York City's first African-American city council president, dies at 73

Lindsey O'Laughlin
York Dispatch

Wm. Lee Smallwood, a former York City councilman, military veteran and longtime community leader, died Wednesday, Jan. 30, at the age of 73 after a decadeslong battle with multiple sclerosis.

According to a statement released by his family, Smallwood was the first African-American city council president in York City and served nearly 30 years on the council.

Sandra Thompson, president of the York chapter of the NAACP, said Monday, Feb. 4, that Smallwood was a mentor for her when she was young and that he helped open doors for African-Americans by being an example of a leader.

She said he was open and receptive when she approached him with questions or needed advice.

"I think those are the types of legacies that he left for the younger generation," Thompson said, "to say that they can attain what he had attained, they can aspire to the same positions because he achieved it."

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Smallwood was appointed to fill a vacant seat on York City Council from 1977 to 1980 and was then elected to the council in 1983, serving until 2007, his family said.

Wm. Lee Smallwood waits for results in the York City Council primary outside the Democratic headquarters in York City, Tuesday May 15, 2007.
York Dispatch File

He worked in continuing education at Penn State York, where he introduced the Mathematics: Opportunities in Engineering, Science and Technology program.

After his retirement, Smallwood and his wife, Janis Rozelle, moved back to her hometown of New Orleans.

Mayor Michael Helfrich said Smallwood was a pioneer for African-Americans in York City government and that his particular legacy is affectionately known as the Smallwood Ordinance.

The Smallwood Ordinance is Article 136, formally titled the Small and Disadvantaged Business Enterprise Program.

The program's purpose was to encourage the city to partner with local, small businesses — particularly those owned by women and minorities — for city government contracts.

"Unfortunately, over the years the goal was never really fulfilled from that ordinance," Helfrich said, "but my administration is committed to working to bring economic equity and support businesses within the city."

Helfrich said he's working with the governor's office to emulate current state-level programs designed to ensure that government employment and contract awards reflect the racial, ethnic and gender makeup of the community.

Twenty-six year City Council member, Lee Smallwood, greets York City Regional Coordinator for the Democratic party, Stephen Hawkins, outside the YWCA polling station in York City on Tuesday May 15, 2007.
York Dispatch File

"We’re working on not updating this ordinance but putting in place programs that will actually fulfill the intent of Lee Smallwood," Helfrich said.

York City Council President Henry Nixon said one of the current council's priorities is to offer that "leg up" to small and disadvantaged York City businesses that Smallwood envisioned.

Nixon said the council included about $50,000 in the 2019 budget for that purpose.

"(Smallwood) was a big force for York City when he served on council," Nixon said. "And even before, he was a very strong force in the community."

Other service: Smallwood wasn't only a city councilman. 

After graduating from William Penn Senior High School in 1963, the York native enlisted in the U.S. Air Force and graduated at the top of his class from the personnel technical school at the former Greenville Air Force Base in Mississippi.

Smallwood served as personnel specialist at McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey and later attended Trenton State College, also in New Jersey.

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In 1970, after returning home to York City, the veteran took part in an intense, nine-day meeting with city officials and residents to find solutions to the racial tensions that had culminated in the deadly 1969 riots in York City.

Wm. Lee Smallwood, left, with his wife, Janis Rozelle. Smallwood, a York City native and long-time city councilman, died Wednesday, Jan. 30, after a long battle with multiple sclerosis. He was 73.

Smallwood also served on a number of boards and committees in the community, including those of the Crispus Attucks Association, the York City Citizens Advisory Committee, Minority Police Recruitment Steering Committee, Community Caucus of York, Strand-Capitol Performing Arts Center and Leadership York, among others.

Helfrich said he thinks Smallwood would tell others to not let anyone hold them back from doing what they think is right.

"Lee didn’t let other people dictate what he could and could not do," Helfrich said, "and I think that’s the message to everyone."

Memorial:  Smallwood is survived by his wife, Janis Rozelle, daughters Yolanda Sherrer, Aundrea Smallwood and Daniela “Liza” Smallwood and stepchildren Rebecca Bergens, Donald Bergens Jr. and Paula Rozelle Hanback, along with siblings, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Smallwood's family said there will be a public memorial service in his honor in York City, but the date is to be determined.

Services for family and friends will be held at noon Friday, Feb. 8, at Lake Lawn Metairie Funeral Home in New Orleans.