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Smyth, John H.(1844–1908) - Diplomat, lawyer, educator, editor, Takes Advantage of Various Career Opportunities, Chronology

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John Henry Smyth (Smythe in some sources) was an influential national and international figure during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Armed with excellent credentials in education, he taught school, was one of the nation’s first African American civil service employees, worked at Freedmen’s Savings and Trust, practiced law, was a diplomat, edited an African American newspaper, and founded a reformatory school for African American youth.

On July 14, 1844, Smyth was born to Sully Smyth, a slave, and Ann Eliza Goode Smyth, a free woman, in Richmond, Virginia. Their son received reading lessons from an African American woman in Richmond, and subsequently his parents decided that he should continue his education in Philadelphia, a city where African American children attended private schools as early as 1770 and public schools as early as 1822. When Smyth was seven years old, he moved to Philadelphia and attended a Quaker school and then a public school prior to his father’s death in 1857. Smyth, who had entered his teen years, then dropped out of school and worked as an errand boy at a dry goods store for one year.

In 1859, Smyth enrolled in the Institute for Colored Youth (ICY). Formerly known as the African Institute, the ICY was founded in 1837 by Quakers in order to provide post-secondary education to African Americans and was chartered in 1842. Subsequently the ICY was known as Cheyney University of Pennsylvania, which is the oldest historically black institution of higher learning in the United States. During Smyth’s matriculation at ICY, Ebenezer D. Bassett was principal. Bassett later gained distinction as the first African American diplomat when President Ulysses S. Grant appointed him to be the U.S. minister resident/consul general to Haiti in 1869. Nine years later, Smyth followed in his former principal’s footsteps when he was appointed U.S. minister resident/consul general to Liberia.

After Smyth graduated from the ICY on May 4, 1862, he enrolled at the Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia where he was the first African American student to be granted admission. Smyth, who had studied drawing and painting prior to his entrance to the academy, displayed talent as a landscape painter. Decades later, William J. Simmons, in the preface to his book, Men of Mark (1887), acknowledged his gratitude to Smyth, whose biography is included in Simmons’ collection of 177 concise biographies of distinguished national and international men of African descent, “for assistance in sketches and pictures of E. W. Blyden and President W. W. Johnson.”

In 1865, Smyth, who had worked in the china house of Tyndale and Mitchell, in Philadelphia, as well as for the army as a sutler’s clerk, decided to pursue his thespian dream. He left Philadelphia for London, where armed with letters of introduction, he attempted to meet tragedians Ira Aldridge and Samuel Phelps. Whether Smyth met Phelps is not clear; however, Smyth’s attempt to meet Aldridge proved futile. During Smyth’s visit to London, Aldridge performed in St. Petersburg. Smyth, unable to afford to study acting, returned to the United States.

Takes Advantage of Various Career Opportunities

Upon his return to the United States, Smyth earned a living as a manual laborer until he obtained a teaching position in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. Smyth then enrolled in the Howard University Law School where John Mercer Langston was dean. (In 1877, Langston was appointed U.S. minister resident/consul general to Haiti one year before Smyth received his diplomatic assignment to Liberia.) In 1870, Smyth was appointed a clerk in the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands of the War Department, and he graduated from the Howard University Law School. In August of the same year, Smyth resigned from the Bureau of Refugees in order to accept a position as clerk in the Interior Department’s Census Office, and in 1872, he was employed by the Treasury Department.



Born in Richmond, Virginia on July 14


Graduates from the Institute for Colored Youth


Becomes a clerk in the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands of the War Department; graduates from the Howard University Law School; works as a clerk in the Interior Department’s Census Office; marries Fannie Shippen


Works at the Treasury Department


Works at the Freedmen’s Savings and Trust Company in Washington and later at its Wilmington, North Carolina branch


Passes law examination in Raleigh, North Carolina


Member of North Carolina’s Constitutional Convention


Practices law in Washington


Becomes a clerk in the Office of the Comptroller of the Treasury


Appointed U.S. resident/consul general to Liberia


Reappointed U.S. resident/consul general to Liberia


Edits The Reformer


Establishes the Manual Labor School


Dies on September 5

One year later, Smyth began his employment with the Freedmen’s Savings and Trust Company (FSTC), also known as the Freedmen’s Bank, in Washington, D.C. The FSTC was the nation’s first black bank, established by Congress in 1865 to help former slaves achieve financial independence. There were more than thirty bank branches in various states. Smyth, who was a clerk at Freedmen’s, transferred to the Wilmington, North Carolina branch where he was a cashier. After the FSTC’s demise in 1874, Smyth remained in Wilmington, passed a law examination administered by members of North Carolina’s Supreme Court in Raleigh, and according to Simmons, “entered upon the practice of his profession.” In 1875, he was a member of North Carolina’s Constitutional Convention.

Smyth returned to Washington in 1876, practiced law for a year, and was appointed a clerk in the Office of the Comptroller of the Treasury. In 1878 President Rutherford B. Hayes, heeding the recommendations of Frederick Douglass (who was appointed U.S. resident/consul general to Haiti and chargé d’affaires to the Dominican Republic in 1889) and others, appointed Smyth U.S. minister resident/consul general to Liberia. Smyth held the diplomatic position until December 22, 1881, when Henry H. Garnet succeeded him. After Garnet’s death in February 1882, President Chester Arthur reappointed Smyth minister resident/consul general to Liberia. Smyth then stayed in office until December 14, 1885. During his terms in office, the U.S. government allowed Smyth to lead the German Consulate at Monrovia for sixth months as well as the Belgian Consulate in Liberia. In honor of his contributions to Liberia, Smyth was awarded an honorary LL.D. degree from Liberia College, and on December 28, 1885, Liberian president Hilary R.W. Johnson appointed Smyth knight commander of the Liberian humane order of African redemption. Earlier that month, Smyth spoke at the Congress of Africa, held in Atlanta during December 13-15; the topic of Smyth’s speech was “The African in Africa and the African in America.”

Establishes the Manual Labor School

In 1892, Smyth became the editor of The Reformer , a Richmond-based African American newspaper. In 1897, he accepted another challenge after he and several other African American men, concerned with the plight of African American juvenile offenders in Virginia who were denied admittance to the reformatory for white boys and were being sent to jails and the penitentiary instead, formed the corporation known as the Negro Reformatory Association of Virginia (NRAV). After receiving contributions from people in Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York, Rhode Island, and Virginia, the corporation purchased the Broad Neck plantation in Hanover, Virginia. Also in 1897 Smyth, as head of the NRAV, founded the Manual Labor School which was one of the first African American reformatory schools in the South. The school admitted minors of both sexes. Smyth remained in charge of the school until his death in 1908. Twelve years later, Virginia assumed control of the Manual Labor School and its 1,800 acres. The former farmland where Smyth’s school was established later became the site of the Hanover Juvenile Correctional Center; its secondary school is named the John H. Smyth High School. An additional tribute is found in Hanover County; a highway marker on Route 301 near the intersection with VA 605 contains a brief biography of Smyth.

In 1870, Smyth married Fannie Ellen Shippen, who was the daughter of Rev. John Shippen from Washington, D.C. She was Smyth’s former student in Howard University’s first elocution class. The Smyths were the parents of at least one child. Although information about Smyth is scarce in contemporary sources, he remains an important forefather of African American educators, diplomats, government employees, and lawyers.

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almost 8 years ago

The correct spelling of the name is Smythe. It is how John Smythe spelled his name and is how we prefer to.

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about 7 years ago

John Smythe had relations in Sierra Leone as well as Liberia .We would like to meet other relatives.

Amy Smythe.

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over 4 years ago

This article documents the spelling of the name accurately as Smyth which is how the original John Smyth spelled it in his correspondence.