STEPHEN SMITH (1795-1873) was born into slavery. At the tender age of five he became the indentured servant for Thomas Boude, a Pennsylvanian businessman. Smith spent his youth working the lumberyard. However, he also learned lessons from his master about business. This mentoring would make Smith rich beyond imagination.
In that day, an indentured servant was different than a slave. Indentured servants worked for a limited time and then were freed. When Smith turned 21 he was now an adult and could choose to continue in servitude to Boude or leave. Smith chose the latter. He acquired a $50 loan and purchased his full freedom.
Now he labored in the lumberyards for his own dime. Smith eventually married and soon opened his own lumber business. In his thirties, Smith expanded his business into coal, real estate and railroads. He invested in the stock market.
As his wealth grew, so did his influence.
In 1830 Smith presided over the African American Abolitionist Organization in Colombia, PA. His hometown newspaper noted that Smith’s business success had “excited the envy or hatred of those not so prosperous and of the ruling race.” In 1835 racist vandals destroyed Smith’s offices, including all his papers and records. They wanted to stop his businesses. However, this act of destruction only lit a fire under Smith to work harder to abolish the institution of slavery. To escape the vitriol, he moved to Philadelphia to start over…and quickly regained all his wealth. He knew how to make money.
In Philadelphia, Smith found a new problem. It was difficult for abolitionists to find a place to meet. So Smith bought Pennsylvania Hall in Philadelphia and opened it for abolitionist venue for their meetings. But that didn’t go unnoticed by some anti-Black locals. They also wanted Smith gone. On July 17, 1838 an angry pro-slavery mob torched his building. Smith was devastated, but he also understood the law and how to make it work to one’s favor. Consequently, he sued the city of Philadelphia and won a $75,000 damage package (more than the building was even worth). Smith was back in business.
Neither fire nor hate could stop Smith. He passionately continued to promote abolitionism.
He even financed the underground railroad to transport runaway Southern slaves to Canada.
All the while his wealth increased. A lot.
By mid-century, Smith was grossing over $100,000 a year. His business acumen had returned huge dividends. By the end of the decade his net worth was half a million dollars ($16.7 million today).
At the same time, the political winds were turning against the abolitionists and Black community. The 31st U.S. Congress–a Democrat-led Senate and House–passed several pro-slavery laws, including the Fugitive Slave Act (1850). Smith knew this particular act was dangerous and so he convinced 15,000 Blacks to join him and move to Canada (financing their travel and new life). Fifteen years later, only after the Civil War and the emancipation of the slaves was law, did Smith return to Philadelphia. He was still a very rich man.
Smith’s wealth led to his notable philanthropy. He gave away hundreds of thousands of dollars to fund schools, old age homes, churches and other organizations that benefited local communities. His generosity only made him richer. By the time of his death in 1873, Smith’s wealth, according to his hometown newspaper, was nearly “equal to the combined wealth” of the nation of Columbia.
Stephen Smith was Black America’s first true business mogul. However, his desire to abolish slavery and lift his people out of bondage is what’s truly inspiring.
STEPHEN SMITH. Former Slave. Businessman. Abolitionist.
And now you know the rest of HIStory.
- “Stephen Smith” (Wikipedia): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stephen_Smith_(abolitionist)
- Stephen Smith by Alicia Rivera (January 18, 2007): https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/smith-stephen-1795-1873/
- Note: Some facts, including Smith’s birth date (1795 or 1797) vary, depending on the source. Due to Smith’s early years as a slave, actual birth records are hard to verify. When in doubt on the facts, I have chosen to reflect the majority’s view.