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Gwendolyn A Smith Bolden (1926 – 2022): ‘pillar of strength’ and ‘icon for change’

A Bermudian-born woman who served in the US Navy during the 1950s and founded a charity for troubled youth in California became “a pillar of strength” in her Los Angeles community.

Gwendolyn Smith Bolden, daughter of Charles Smith and Dorothy Wheeler, went on to found the Gwen Bolden Youth Foundation in Los Angeles in 1979, helping at-risk youth to further their education.

Ms Smith Bolden spent her early years in Bermuda but moved to the United States with her mother and brother, Charles. She attended Wilberforce University in Ohio.

Uncommonly for the time as a Black woman, Ms Smith Bolden rose to the rank of lieutenant while serving in the US Navy from 1953 to 1956. She also served as a naval nurse.

During her service, she encountered a White enlisted man of lower rank, William “Bill” Bolden, who was disciplined after refusing to salute a Black woman.

Angered by the incident, Mr Bolden approached her in a bar but asked her on a date instead.

Relationships were prohibited between enlisted personnel and officers so the couple had to keep their romance secret. But eventually they married and settled on the coast near Los Angeles, where they raised a son, Bill Jr, and daughters Michele and Yvette.

Ms Smith Bolden worked for General Electric before qualifying as a teacher at the University of Southern California.

As a high schoolteacher in the LA area, she saw a need for expelled students to get their education back on track.

She and her husband opened a community centre in the Venice/Mar Vista area, which turned into a court-mandated reading programme and ultimately qualified for grants and non-profit status.

Many of the students who attended were active gang members.

A family statement said: “Gwen and Bill had kind, understanding spirits, which were able to connect with these troubled individuals in a unique way.

“Gwen and Bill always treated young people with respect, which led to a mutual respect – and therefore learning flourished.”

The Gwen Bolden Youth Foundation grew from their work, offering counselling and mentorship as well as classes, with the help of fellow teachers Carolyn Russell, Mildred Laneuville and Gladys King.

In 1984, Ms Smith Bolden lost her husband to a drink-drinker on what would have been his 55th birthday.

The foundation kept running for 35 years.

Her family said: “Gwendolyn Smith Bolden will for ever live in the hearts of many as a pillar of strength in the Los Angeles urban community and an icon for change.

“Gwen was a woman dedicated to the service of others. The Gwen Bolden Youth Foundation empowered and affected countless young lives for a positive future.”

• Gwendolyn A Smith Bolden, a teacher and youth counsellor, was born on September 27, 1926. She died on December 1, 2022, aged 96.

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Published January 03, 2023 at 8:14 am (Updated January 03, 2023 at 8:14 am)

Gwendolyn A Smith Bolden (1926 – 2022): ‘pillar of strength’ and ‘icon for change’

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