Working for Higher Education: Advancing Black Women’s Rights in the 1850s

Susan Paul Smith

Although the delegates of the 1853 National Convention in Rochester, New York, were all male, they were not the only African Americans that greatly contributed to the cultivation of good education for Black communities. In fact there were a large number of Black female educators that devoted most of their lives to educating Black children. A great example is Susan Paul Smith Vashon. Smith was born 1838 in Boston, Massachusetts. Her father was a well-known composer and cornet player, while her mother Ann Paul Smith, was the daughter of Rev. Thomas Paul, pastor of the church in which the American Anti-Slavery Society was founded.[1]

At the age of sixteen, Smith was the only African American girl and valedictorian of her class at Miss O’Mears’ seminary.[2] Once her grandmother passed away, she was hired as a teacher in the only school for Black children in Pittsburgh. Coincidentally, the principal of the school was George B. Vashon. The two were married 1857, and Smith continued her activism throughout the Civil War and even after her husband’s death. Smith set up sanitary stations for wounded soldiers fighting for the Union, and she housed Black war refugees in Pittsburgh. Later in life she became the principal of the Thaddeus Stevens School in Washington D.C.[3]

In the early 1880s, Smith Vashon and her family moved to St. Louis, Missouri, where the George B. Vashon Research Center and Museum now stands. Smith Vashon died on November 27, 1912.[4] Smith was able to use the educational opportunities she had in order to ensure that the next generation of Black men and women would be able to do the same.


[1] Hallie Q. Brown. Homespun Heroines and Other Women of Distinction. (Xenia: Aldine, 1926),133

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] “Teacher and Community Resource, Susan Vashon,” African American Registry. African American Registry, n.d. Web.


Written by Emma Cones. Taught by Sharla Fett, History 213, Occidental College, Spring 2016.

Edited and revised by Samantha de Vera, University of Delaware.