Born in 1950 in West Virginia, Smith moved to Fort Pierce, Florida, when he was nine. When the names of the Florida Highwaymen were released, he was listed as “Cornell Smith”—a name no one recognized. But he was widely known by his nickname, Pete. That name came by way of an incident soon after he moved to Fort Pierce when he and some friends were skinny-dipping and were caught by police. The boys scattered, but one officer yelled, “Halt!” at Smith. Afraid, Smith ran away as fast as he could, escaping the officer. The local newspaper ran a story about the incident the next day. The police officer apparently was known as being the fleetest of foot on the force, but not quick enough to catch the unidentified naked boy he was chasing. The officer referred to the boy who got away as “Quick Peter,” and from then on, Smith was called “Pete.”
Smith attended Lincoln Park Academy and became friends with Alfred Hair, who later married his sister, Doretha. He was one of Hair’s salesmen and would occasionally paint. “Anything was better than working in the fields. I never ran into any hardship on the road. Everything has to do with who you are. You have some people who are racist, some white people who just don’t like blacks,” he said. One time he was out selling Hair’s still-wet paintings and went into the office of a man who knew Hair who accused him of stealing the paintings from Hair.
“I sold a lot of paintings in Miami…we had moved to Miami and were just coming back,” Smith said of the time right before Hair’s death. “This was going to be our last time to come to Fort Pierce to paint, and Alfred had a lot of dreams of all the stuff he wanted to do. We was all excited, pumped up. And he was all ready to go.”
Smith is now a pastor at a church in Pennsylvania.