Carlton R. Smith was affectionately called “The Duchess” in a nod to royalty, because of his unofficial role of mayor of Baltimore’s Mount Vernon neighborhood. He was a “walking billboard” for Calvin Klein, with a love for purple, Batman, cooking, house music, Prince and Diana Ross.

“If you said Duchess, you knew who that was,” said his close friend of 25-years, Carrietta Hiers.

But at his core, Smith was a staunch advocate for Black and brown members of the LGBTQ community. Even at 61, he showed no signs of slowing down.

His most recent fight was to change laws related to the spread of HIV in the state so that people couldn’t be charged with a crime for transmitting the virus. He even went to Annapolis this past legislative session to raise awareness about that issue. But his advocacy ended May 29 when he died in his sleep in his Mount Vernon condominium.

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Those who knew him said that his fight for equity was infectious and became a blueprint for future generations of Maryland advocates and activists.

Smith, who was the oldest of three children, was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, and came to Baltimore to attend Morgan State University, where he received a degree in advertising in 1985. He later worked for Amtrak as a ticket collector.

Smith also was an active member of Unity Fellowship Church of Baltimore where he was an ordained deacon, according to Hiers.

“He was a man of faith, and he loved his community,” Hiers said.

Smith and Hiers bonded through HIV and AIDS activism.

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The two met in a training session for Baltimore’s Health Education Resources Organization (HERO), one of the earliest AIDS advocacy groups in the country. Smith was a board member for the organization and trained volunteers who provided meals and other resources to people living with HIV and AIDS.

“We met and clicked,” Hiers said as she fought back tears and recalled how close they became with Smith, regularly spending holidays with her family. She was even one of his emergency contacts. “He saw the need. He knew they [people living with HIV and AIDS] needed and deserved these volunteer services.”

Smith and other older LGBTQ people helped lay the foundation for many of the rights that we enjoy now, said Phillip Westry, executive director of FreeState Justice, a Baltimore-based legal advocacy organization that seeks to improve the lives of low-income LGBTQ Marylanders.

Smith and Westry worked closely together over the past few years while Smith was a member of FreeState Justice’s HIV Coalition, including advocating for the decriminalization of HIV in Maryland before Annapolis lawmakers.

“He was a dear friend of mine. I was devastated when I heard of his passing,” Westry said.

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In 2002, Smith, Kevin Clemons, Dana Owens and Leroy Burgess, co-founded Blaq Equity Baltimore, which is the organization that produces the annual Baltimore Black LGBTQIA Pride event. The group formed and produced their own Pride event after feeling “othered” and being told that the Black attendees were “too loud” at the Baltimore Pride parade.

“Carlton had both soaring vision and infectious energy, the perfect recipe for a cherished community leader,” said Jabari Lyles, the current interim executive director of Blaq Equity Baltimore. “Carlton walked into rooms and with fire and warmth, lit the path to what could be. For decades, up until his last day, he was a sturdy fixture in nearly every LGBTQ initiative in this city. Whether it was a board meeting, commission meeting, a special event or a party, we could count on Carlton’s magic and wisdom being present.”

Lyles, who first met Smith 14 years ago, considered Smith to be “a mentor, an advisor, a collaborator, an accomplice, and most importantly, a friend.”

Lyles added: “We owe it to him and his legacy to fill the spaces he occupied with the very best in leadership and love, and to ensure future generations never forget his name.”

Smith embodied the resilience needed to confront the challenges faced by the LGBTQ+ community as it battles to safeguard rights and advance progress, according to Matt Thorn, the former executive director of the GLCCB and former CEO of OutServe-SLDN, an advocacy group representing a network of LGBT military personnel.

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“It’s rare to encounter someone like Carlton, and it’s an even greater privilege to have received their guidance and heard their stories. Despite facing a world that often seemed cruel and unjust, Carlton persevered and dedicated themselves to helping the next generation navigate this complex reality,” said Thorn.

“Carlton’s most significant achievement as an activist was his ability to retain moral authority and pass it on to everyone he encountered, even those who may have disagreed with him,” Thorn added.

Smith volunteered in various ways with Chase Brexton Health Care, which serves a large number of LGBTQ patients, going back into the late 1990s. He served on the first advisory council for the Center for LGBTQ Health Equity and was a founding member of the ElderPride Council.

“Carlton was a longtime volunteer, advisor, mentor and friend at Chase Brexton Health Care and was well-known to many organizations and LGBTQ people throughout Baltimore and Maryland,” said Sam McClure, Executive Director of the Center for LGBTQ Health Equity “His wisdom, friendship, and support will be missed, but the impact of the work he championed will be felt for years to come.”

Smith was a fan of former Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, said Hiers.

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“We just called her Stephanie,” Hiers recalled. “The doors at City Hall were always open to Carlton.”

Rawlings-Blake expressed sorrow when learning of Smith’s death.

“Baltimore has lost a vibrant light. Carlton was a force to be reckoned with. He was a tireless advocate for his community,” she said. “I could always count on him to show up with credibility, empathy, passion. He was a true friend to my Administration and helped me be a better ally. I will miss his smiles, hugs, and infectious energy.”

Retired Sgt. Kevin Bailey first met Smith 10 years ago when Smith was a member the Baltimore Police LGBTQ advisor board. Bailey was the LGBTQ liaison for the department at the time.

“Losing Carlton is a loss for the whole city,” said Bailey, who considered Smith a friend. “When people talk about a true leader, Carlton was selfless, he always tried to make our community better.”

Smith is survived by Carlette Mitter, a younger sister who lives in New Jersey, and his parents, Cephus and Lula Smith, who live in North Carolina.

A public viewing will be held Friday, June 7 at 5 p.m. at Wylie’s Funeral Home, 701 N. Mount Stt. A funeral will be held there Saturday, June 8, from 12:30. to 1:30 p.m.