The colorful, rags-to-riches saga of Stephen Smith traces his rise from slavery and poverty to wealth. Smith learned the lumber business while still a slave and, when free, owned a thriving lumber enterprise. Smith found a way to manage his various business ventures and at the same time become immersed in antislavery and religious activities. Called the richest antebellum black, he shared his wealth generously with a number of institutions.
Born near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, in Dauphin County around 1795, Stephen Smith was the son of a slave woman, Nancy Smith; his father was unknown. Young Stephen was indentured to General Thomas Boude on July 10, 1801, when he was four or five years old. Boude was a former Revolutionary War officer from Lancaster County, Pennsylvania who allowed Smith to manage his entire lumber business as Smith approached manhood. Smith borrowed $50 on January 3, 1816 for the purpose of purchasing his freedom, and in that same year he purchased release from his indenture. On November 17, 1816 Smith married Harriet Lee, who worked as a servant in the Jonathan Mifflin home. Already equipped with entrepreneurial skills, Smith opened a lumber business and became involved in lucrative real estate operations while his wife operated an oyster and refreshment house.
Stephen Smith became involved in civil rights activities early on. He opposed the policies of the American Colonization Society and demonstrated his opposition in 1831, when he led free blacks in Columbia in a public meeting. In 1834, Smith joined such men as David Ruggles, John Peck, Abraham Shadd, and John B. Vashon who were the first black agents for Freedom's Journal and later for The Emancipator. They were asked to secure subscriptions to the papers and collect what were called arrearages.
- Born near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania
- Indentured to General Thomas Boude
- Purchases his freedom; opens lumber business in Columbia, Pennsylvania; purchases release from indenture; marries Harriet Lee
- Moves to Philadelphia and expands his enterprises
- Becomes one of the first black agents for Freedom's Journal; attends national convention of free people of color in New York; white mob attacks his office and spurs race riot
- Attends national convention of free people of color in Philadelphia
- Joins general Conference of the African Methodist Episcopal church
- Attends first meeting of the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society
- Ordained to preach in the AME church
- Attends national meeting of Pennsylvania Convention of Colored Citizens
- Dies in Philadelphia on November 4
The astute businessman opened a lumber business in Columbia, Pennsylvania, and soon prospered. The risky work on the Underground Railroad did not intimidate such abolitionists as Smith and William Whipper. These two abolitionists and businessmen of Columbus, Pennsylvania escaped bodily harm and jail sentences for secreting slaves. Smith's success in real estate ventures and work as an abolitionist disturbed whites who led a mob in an attack on his office in August 1834, spurring a race riot, followed by a second one in October. They wanted to frighten Smith and force him and other black real-estate owners to sell their property below market value and leave town. They also accused Smith of inflating the value of his property. William F. Worner's account of the Columbia riots noted the letter that Smith received in 1835: "You must know that your presence is not agreeable, and the less you appear in the assembly of the whites the better it will be for your black hide, as there are great many in this place that would think your absence from it a benefit, as you are considered an injury to the real value of property in Columbia. You have [sic] better take the hint." In the 1830s, Smith and several antebellum blacks were members of various boards; for Smith, it was the Columbia Bank. He may have been the bank's largest stockholder, yet he could not become president due to bank rules preventing blacks from holding that post. His status, however, allowed him to name the white man who would be president.
Becomes Successful in Real Estate
When Smith moved to Philadelphia in the late 1830s, he continued to hold extensive real estate and a lumber enterprise in Columbia. He maintained his business in Columbia with William Whipper in charge. In Philadelphia, Smith lived at 921 Lombard Street, the home that his friend, Robert Purvis, sold to him. Later, Stephen and Harriet Smith also had a summer home in Cape May, New Jersey.
There Smith increased his real estate investment and became more successful. Entering a partnership with Ulysses B. Vidal, his wife's nephew, the men owned a large coal and lumber yard. The wealthy Smith owned $18,000 worth of stock in the Columbia Railroad while his stock in the Columbia Bridge Company was valued at $9,000.
Smith was also involved extensively in land speculation and development. In addition to the real estate that he owned in Columbia and in Lancaster, he owned fifty-two brick homes in Philadelphia. "Black Steve," as he came to be known, made wise choices and was held in high regard as a real estate dealer. He sought out bargains when property changed hands and was around to bid on property to be sold. In time, his properties in Philadelphia were valued at $50,000. Smith became the wealthiest American black in the North prior to the Civil War.
Urban land transportation was an important enterprise in the antebellum period, and several blacks had their own conveyances. Among these, the development of the railroad marked the onset of industrial revolution. Both Stephen Smith and William Goodrich, of York, Pennsylvania, seized the opportunity to benefit from the railroad by establishing their own railroad enterprises. By 1850, Smith's firm had twenty-two fine merchantmen cars that ran from Philadelphia to Baltimore. Goodrich had considerable interest in the Baltimore Railroad's branch in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and in 1849 he owned ten first-rate merchandise railroad cars, thus operating a profitable business. Both Smith and Goodrich aided fugitive slaves who had escaped the South by hiding them in a false end of a boxcar. The men lived in Pennsylvania—Smith in Lancaster County and Goodrich in York County—and Maryland, a slave state, touched its border.
According to Quarles in Black Abolitionists, Smith was listed in Wilbur H. Siebert's monumental "Directory of the Names of Underground Railroad Operators," which Siebert said contained 143 blacks. The list included Frederick Douglass, George T. Downing, Robert Purvis, Charles B. Ray, and William Whipper. In 1851, John Brown, who had an all-consuming passion for the abolition of slavery, sought to recruit both black leaders and the black rank-and-file to assist him in his various efforts toward that cause. He was especially interested in the support of such men as Frederick Douglass, Martin R. Delany, Henry Highland Garnet, Jermain W. Loguen, William Still, and Smith. In 1858, Smith hosted Brown in his residence for one week, apparently to discuss abolitionist activities.
Smith attended national conventions of the free people of color held in New York in 1834 and in Philadelphia in 1835. He helped to organize the American Reform Society and was one of seven blacks who attended the first meeting of the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society in 1837. He also attended national meetings of the Pennsylvania State Convention of Colored Citizens, of which he was a member, in Rochester (1853) and in Philadelphia (1855). Smith supported the temperance movement. He held offices in such organizations as the Odd Fellows; Social, Civic, and Statistical Association; Grand Tabernacle of the Independent Order of Brothers and Sisters of Love and Charity; and the Union League Association.
As a philanthropist, Smith contributed much to the Institute of Colored Youth in Pennsylvania, the Home for Destitute Colored Children, and the House of Refuge. He joined white Quakers in establishing the House for Aged and Infirm Colored Persons, which was renamed the Stephen Smith Home for the Aged. A religious man as well, in 1832 Smith bought a church building for the Mount Zion African Methodist Episcopal congregation, and in 1836 he joined the general Conference of the African Methodist Episcopal church, becoming ordained to preach in 1838. He built several other churches, including one each in Chester and Cape May, New Jersey. Smith was a member of Philadelphia's historic Bethel African Methodist Church, known as Mother Bethel. Having been ordained early on, he preached at Bethel's sister churches in Philadelphia.
Smith was a mulatto of medium size and a strong build and had pronounced features. He was described as quiet, stubborn man with principles who lived by his Christian creed. He remained courageous and patient even as he survived occasional white persecution. Smith died in Philadelphia on November 4, 1873, and was buried in one of the sites that he had supported financially, Olive Cemetery. His death brought public recognition for his efforts in race reform and his success as a wealthy black entrepreneur.
Fishel, Leslie H., Jr. "Stephen Smith." In American National Biography. Eds. John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes. Vol. 29. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.
Ingham, John N. and Lynne B. Feldman. African-American Business Leaders: A Biographical Dictionary. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1994.
Kranz, Rachel. African-American Business Leaders and Entrepreneurs. New York: Facts on File, 2004.
McCormick, Richard P. "Stephen Smith." In Dictionary of American Negro Biography. Eds. Rayford W. Logan and Michael R. Winston. New York: Norton, 1982.
Quarles, Benjamin. Black Abolitionists. New York: Oxford University Press, 1969.
Walker, Juliet E. K. The History of Black Business in America: Capitalism, Race, Entrepreneurship. New York: Macmillan Library Reference USA, 1998.
Worner, William F "The Columbia Race Riots." Lancaster County Historical Society Papers 26, No. 8 (October 1922): 175-87. Cited in Juliet E. K. Walker. The History of Black Business in America: Capitalism, Race, Entrepreneurship. New York: Macmillan Library Reference USA, 1998, p. 124.