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Profile: Al Gourrier Sr., community educator, activist

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Al Gourrier Sr.
Photography by Bill Hughes

“Know thyself.” It’s the orienting philosophy for a series of talks at the West Las Arts Center (947 West Lake Mead Blvd.) being presented every Friday this month and next under the rubric “The Native Son Bookstore Revisited.” Shuttered in 2008, Sam Smith’s Native Son Bookstore, in West Las Vegas, did much more than sell books. For decades it was a crossroads, a community center, a learning facility. Smith died a year ago this month. His friend Al Gourrier, a retired principal, helped create the Samuel L. Smith Educational Foundation to carry on his legacy, in particular by helping poor and disenfranchised families.

“I’m from New Orleans. I moved to Vegas about 25 years ago. When I arrived, one of the first people I met was Sam Smith. Sam and I became close friends and comrades in the effort to improve the community and quality of life for African-American and poor people in this community.

“Sam Smith was an avid promoter of African-American history and culture, and that’s what his bookstore was really all about.”

It’s the purpose of the “Native Son Bookstore Revisited” series, as well. Speakers, including Gourrier and retired state senator Joe Neal will tackle such topics as organizing black parents; the political history of West Las Vegas; black youth and small business; and the poetry of rap.

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“We have got to move toward building the positive self-image of individuals by helping them to re-identify and relearn themselves. In building that positive self-image we can help change the status of the world we live in. Where do you begin that change? We begin with know thyself. There is no more potent or powerful knowledge that you can acquire than knowledge of self.”

Also on Gourrier’s calendar is a February 28 “read-a-thon” at the West Las Vegas Arts Center in which groups and individuals will read aloud from the works of African-American writers. It’s of a piece with what Gourrier terms “sankofa,” an African concept of reclaiming old wisdom. It’s basic to self-understanding, he says, and to changing your future.

“We have to go back and talk with our grandparents. We have to go back — like I did, and find out that my great, great, great grandfather was born on the island of Corsica in 1795. He was a doctor in Napoleon’s Army. He fled Europe, moved his family to Canada, migrated to southwestern Louisiana, where he started a medical practice and was instrumental in the opening of LSU medical school.

“On my mother’s side of the family, I have a copy of the land grant that my mother’s family received from the king of France in 1732. I have the name of the ship they sailed in from France, and where they settled in southwestern Louisiana. My great grandmother was a Native American. I have a great, great grandmother who was a descendant of African slaves.

“My mother and father were not college-educated — that is, until my mother graduated from college a year before I did. And when my mother graduated, she had nine children. (Laughs) I had no option but to finish college!

“I have seven children. All have master’s degrees or doctorates. I didn’t tell them, You’ve got to go to school. We become what our parents are. I have a doctorate, my wife has a master’s degree. And in one generation you can change the direction of your family. Now I have seven children who are successful and upwardly mobile. And in one lifetime we can make a difference.”

To help make a difference, the Foundation (nslvlv.org) is negotiating for a facility in West Las Vegas, in which it can operate an Internet café and bookstore, hold parenting classes (“We still have to address racism, injustice, poverty and all of the other extremes in our society, but we must also begin to address the dying art of parenting”), as well as GED, SAT and civil service test prep, a chess club — whatever the community needs. It also intends to offer scholarships in Smith’s name.

“We hope in the next six months to move in and begin doing some constructive things for the West Las Vegas community. I think we’ve done a lot in making an effort to sustain (Smith’s) legacy.”

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