Stephen Smith (ca. 1795­–Nov. 14, 1873) was a well-known, self-made businessman, who exemplified the humility and generosity of wealthy African American activists. Born a slave in Dauphin County, Pennsylvania, Smith bought his freedom at age 21 from Revolutionary veteran General Boude.1 He married Harriet Lee (ca. 1795–Aug. 17, 1880) on November 17, 1816. It appears that both man and wife were eager to start an enterprise of their own: Smith invested in lumber as soon as he could and Lee eventually ran an oyster and refreshment house.2 By 1834, the Smiths had become one of the wealthiest families in Columbia, Pennsylvania.

Despite his wealth, Smith never forgot the unfortunate economic state of many African Americans and, throughout his life, sought to lift them from abject poverty. Tapping into the lumber industry, real estate, and coal market, Smith made enough fortune to enable him to support the religious Black community. He partnered with William Whipper both in business and activism, developing a life-long friendship that would see them through the violent outbreaks in Columbia. In early 1830s, Smith purchased a building for the Mount Zion African Methodist Episcopal congregation.3 His meteoric rise as a businessman soon ignited the envy of the white community. Riots broke out, and the mob targeted Smith, destroying his office and home.4 Smith would continue to receive threats after the riots; however, this did not discourage Smith from speaking against slavery.

A year later, he asked State Senator John Strohm to work toward greater protection of freedom of speech. Scholars Trotter and Smith explain, “Smith sees his situation in Columbia as part of the general struggle against slavery; by placing his race’s situation within the context of freedom of speech, ” he “assumes that the constitutional guarantees automatically applied to the African American. Denial of the fact verified that the promise of America was flawed by inequality.”5 Smith moved to Philadelphia where he would continue fiercely fighting for racial uplift and ameliorating the problem of Black poverty.

In Philadelphia, Smith was ordained a preacher for the AME Church. He also founded (along with Robert Purvis, James Forten, and James McCrummell) the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society, served as the manager of American Anti-Slavery Society for eight years,6 and became an honorary member of the Banneker Institute.7 Smith’s friendship with the Fortens lasted for years. He presided the memorial meeting for James Forten’s funeral in 1842.

Smith’s properties give clues as to what his foremost concerns were. Burying grounds for African Americans were limited in the 19th-century. This posed a greater problem for poor African Americans who suffered a loss of a loved one. Smith bought one of the few Black cemeteries in the area, Olive Cemetery, which was located across from his other charitable institution.8 Along with Margaretta Forten, James Forten Jr.’s sister, Smith established Philadelphia Home for the Aged and Infirm Colored People,9 now known as Stephen Smith Home. Smith and Forten’s efforts to help the sick and the old, show that they were always mindful of the most helpless within the poor Black population of Philadelphia.

Like Whipper, Smith also entertained the idea of moving to Canada. Mary Ann Shadd’s A Plea for Emigration ignited discussions within the Black elite community. Smith and Whipper bought land in Dresden, a Black settlement in Ontario, Canada, and invested in some Dresden businesses.10 It is unclear when Smith visited Canada, but he may have done so upon meeting Shadd at the 1855 National Colored Convention.

Upon his death in 1873, Smith had accumulated about a hundred properties. The Pacific Appeal reports that Smith had been sick for some time and died while unconscious. A big part of his estate was left to the Zion Mission, which he founded in 1857, and the Home for the Aged.11 He was survived by his wife, Harriet Smith, who died seven years later.12 Both were buried in Olive Cemetery, and their remains were later interred at Eden Cemetery.


Contributed by Samantha de Vera, University of Delaware.


  1. Historical Papers and Addresses of the Lancaster County Historical Society. Vol. 26-27. (Lancaster Historical Society, 1922). 177. Link
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Alicia Rivera. “Smith, Stephen (1795–1873).” Link
  5. Joe William Trotter Jr. and Eric Ledell Smith. African American Perspectives in Pennsylvania: Shifting Historical Perspectives. (University Park: Pennsylvania State UP, 1997), 180.
  6. Mary Ellen Snodgrass. The Underground Railroad: An Encyclopedia of People, Places, and Operations. (London: Routledge, 2008), 500
  7. Boulou Ebanda de B’béri, Nina Reid-Maroney, Handel Kashope Wright. The Promised Land: History and Historiography of the Black Experience in Chatham-Kent’s Settlements and Beyond. (Toronto: U of Toronto P, 2014), 112.
  8. Thomas H. Keels. Images of America: Philadelphia Graveyards and Cemeteries. (Charleston: Arcadia, 2003), 85.
  9. Julie Winch. A Gentleman of Color: the Life of James Forten. (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2002), 442.
  10. B’béri, Reid-Maroney, and Wright. The Promised Land, 114.
  11. “Death of Rev. Stephen Smith.” The Pacific Appeal, 13 Dec. 1873. California Digital Newspaper Collection. Link
  12. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Death Certificates Index, 1803-1915 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations, Inc., 2011.