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Problem-solving, ‘Starship Archie’ and making all families count: longtime court clerk bids adieu

In the 20 years since Archie Smith III took over as Durham County Clerk of the Superior Court, he has seen much change. The Durham metro area population skyrocketed by around 129,000. Three different mayors have sat on city council. High-rise apartments have overtaken the Brightleaf and Warehouse districts. The court system even migrated down the block to a new building.

“Durham, the town that you see, is not the town that I grew up in,” Smith said. He added: “Every evolution of Durham is exciting to me.” 

Except that the newest evolution of Durham’s court system does not include him.

In May of 2022, Smith lost re-election to newcomer Aminah Thompson, and in December, he will return to civilian life. Change has finally caught up with the man who was the center of the courts for twenty years. And he says he is okay with that.

“Time flies,” he said quietly. Later he added,“Shake your fist at the storm, and you’re gonna get wet!”

Smith, a Durham native and NCCU School of Law graduate, described the clerk’s office as “the hub of the court system.” Smith rattled off all the different duties taken on by him and his staff of 72; in addition to keeping records for courthouse proceedings (which the internet appears to think is the clerk’s only job), the role includes judging probate, appointing guardians for minors, overseeing incompetency cases, and settling general disputes. Phew.

Smith, whose chatty, jovial presence puts strangers at ease, thrives under the pressure. He describes his job as a professional problem solver—when a case comes across his desk, it leaves resolved. “Probably one of the best things about being the clerk,” Smith said, “is that I’m challenged every day.”

Durham County District Attorney Satana DeBerry emphasized Smith’s dedication to conquering daunting tasks. The two collaborated on the Durham Expunction and Restoration Program, a reform effort that expunges records that prevent Durham residents from regaining their drivers’ licenses. Together they worked to waive older traffic for over 35,000 Durham residents and 1,200 petitions for expungement.

“That required tremendous lift from the clerk, and he certainly could’ve said no to that,” DeBerry said of Smith. “But he was enthusiastic about being involved in making that happen.”

Smith’s legacy does not stop there. LGBTQ+ groups have long endorsed him due to his support for the development of landmark second parent adoption procedures in Durham starting around 2004. This historic process allowed same-sex couples to have both parents recognized on birth certificates and other legal documents before same-sex marriage was legalized in 2015.

Smith had the choice to turn away documents requesting a second name, but he fought for them, said attorney Cheri Patrick. It was not a popular choice, but “he did it because he believes that all families are important,” she said. “That all families count.”  

Smith has brought all types of families together across Durham County, and created one right in the courthouse, too. “It’s not your usual workplace atmosphere,” he said. “We’re conscious of that.”

The office is shockingly close-knit for its size. Smith points to photos of hundreds of his employees over the years, recounting fond memories, such as when employee Pam Apple bought his granddaughter her first Easter basket.

Smith encourages all of his clerks and assistants to bring their children into the office if necessary (for instance, if childcare falls through or there is a teacher workday), and as he says, they all become aunts and uncles for the day. “The Starship Archie,” as Smith has nicknamed his office, is stocked with chocolates and toys for the children to play with, as his granddaughters, now 16 and 10, once did.

Smith’s granddaughters were well-known faces around the office when they were children. As he showed me around the courtroom, Smith picked up the gavel sound block riddled with dents and scratches.

“I have never used one of these in court in 20 years,” he laughed. “My eldest granddaughter, she would put on my old robe, and she would sit in this chair with myself and a couple of lawyers, and she would hold court and bang on this.”

In just under six months, Smith will leave the bench when Thompson steps into the role. Thompson, the first African-American clerk elected in Durham history, is a fresh face on the scene. Smith had not seen an opponent for the county clerk position since 2002, but Thompson barreled into office with 65% of the vote in May. 

Her agenda of reform and modernization won the endorsement of the People’s Alliance, a key political organization that had long supported Smith. To Smith, this shift of support was a major reason for his loss. “It was simply politics,” Smith said, throwing up his hands.

DeBerry, despite being fond of Smith, says Thompson may be the better choice to bring Durham’s courts into the future as North Carolina moves towards E-Courts (court records kept in the cloud rather than in physical copies) and becomes more technologically sophisticated. 

“I think that it just takes a different mindset,” said DeBerry. “I don’t know that [Smith] would have led the charge.”

So what’s next for Smith? He gushed about spending more time with his wife of 24 years and granddaughters, which he has put off over his years as clerk. He also hopes to do more with organizations like the Durham Sports Club and his Masonic lodge, and get started on long-neglected repair projects.

“I’ll clear the decks,” Smith said with a laugh. “I have got a whole laundry list of projects and things I haven’t been able to have the time for.”

As Smith has watched Durham transform, he relies on things he calls “anchors,” little pieces of the city that never seem to change. The Lucky Strike smokestack, the Sower statue on Duke’s East Campus, the historic Durham Athletic Park: “They’re where you get your anchor to the community and to yourself.”

And after two decades as the hub of Durham’s criminal justice system, for many, Smith has become an anchor himself. 

“He is from a different time in Durham, when it was much more of a small town,” DeBerry said. “A guy like him who grew up on the wrong side of the tracks, so to speak, could grow up to go to law school and have a real impact on his community.” 

She added: “Those kinds of guys don’t come along anymore.”

Above: Photo of Archie Smith by Maddie Wray — The 9th Street Journal