How Stephen Smith, once the richest Black man in U.S., used his wealth to free thousands of African Americans

Stephen Smith/Photo credit: Philadelphia Inquirer

One of his notable legacies is getting 15,000 people of African descent to move to Canada after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850. His commitment to fighting slavery stemmed from the fact that he was born into slavery.

Abolitionist Stephen Smith became aware of his status when he was separated from his mother at the age of five and given out to Pennsylvanian businessman Thomas Boude as an indentured servant. Boude, who was a former revolutionary war officer from Lancaster County, placed Smith in charge of his lumber business, according to Stephen Smith House.

His mother, Nancy Smith, was a slave so she had no choice concerning his fate. But when Smith was 21, he raised $50 to purchase his freedom on January 3, 1816. Smith was born in 1725 in Dauphin County, Pennsylvania. He married Harriet Lee on November 17, 1816, while she was still working as a servant in the Jonathan Mifflin home.

He ventured into the lumber business shortly after he gained his freedom. He operated his business in Columbia, Pennsylvania. He expanded his business when he became successful. He partnered with William Whipper in 1830 as part of his vision to establish a global conglomerate with the lumber business as the central focus.

Smith and Whipper ran a lucrative business and soon diversified into coal, real estate, railroad cars as well as other investments in the stock market. Smith became known as the richest Black man in America. As part of giving back to society, Smith and Whipper decided to use their wealth to fight slavery. His efforts earned him the Chairman of the African American Abolitionist Organization in 1830.

In 1831, he was ordained in the Mt. Zion A.M.E. Church on South Fifth Street, Columbia. The white community began sabotaging his business when they realized the success of his business. In 1835 a mob of whites destroyed his office including his documents and records.

Instead of being deterred and cowed into submission, Smith prioritized his agenda of combating slavery. He purchased a safe house where he held meetings with the black community. He helped many enslaved Africans to escape from Maryland to Canada.

He kicked against a policy instituted by the American Colonisation Society and demonstrated his stiff resistance by leading free blacks in Columbia in a public meeting in 1831. He partnered with other abolitionists such as David Ruffles, John Peck, Abraham Shadd and John B. Cash.

Though he was the largest shareholder of the Columbia Bank, the color of his skin made it impossible for them to name him as the President of the bank. The power he had was to name a white man in his stead. His dream was that the African-American community would be empowered and free someday.

Smith died in 1873.

Last Edited by:Mildred Europa Taylor Updated: February 6, 2023


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