Other Free Encyclopedias » Online Encyclopedia » Encyclopedia - Featured Articles » Contributed Topics from P-T » Smith, Stephen(c. 1795–1873) - Entrepreneur, abolitionist, Chronology

Becomes Successful in Real Estate

smith philadelphia railroad black

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 Page 609  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.

User Comments

Your email address will be altered so spam harvesting bots can't read it easily.
Hide my email completely instead?

Cancel or