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History:Stephen Smith, a former slave, becomes a millionaire

Jul 11th, 2009 | By | Category: Features, Front Page


It is a unique rags-to-riches story from the early 1800s.

Stephen Smith was a self-made black millionaire who worked and lived in Columbia. He made his money in the lumber industry and through thoughtful investments.  Instead of being proud of his success, many people in Columbia were jealous of him causing him to move to Philadelphia.  Today, few people in central Pennsylvania have ever heard of him.

Smith’s first stroke of luck was being purchased by General Thomas Boude, a hero of the American Revolution.  General Boude had married Elizabeth Wright, a Quaker.  She was the granddaughter of John Wright, who had started a ferry to transport people, animals, and wagons across the Susquehanna River at a site then called Wright’s Ferry, now Columbia.

Although the General was a soldier and the Quakers were pacifists, he most certainly was sympathetic toward Quaker views on the equality of individuals.  The Quakers emphasized that the “inner light” of God was in every person.  Respect was to be extended even to a 6-year-old black slave.

Lancaster County historian Samuel Evans gave an anecdote that told as much about General Boude as it did about the sharp-witted little boy he had acquired.  According to Evans, Smith was accompanied by a dog when the General was taking him to his new home at Wright’s Ferry.

When the two travelers made a stop in Harrisburg, a boy approached Smith and offered him $.50 for the dog.  Smith accepted the money and gave the dog to the boy.  When the General and Smith departed, the dog jumped out of the boy’s arms and followed Smith.

The kid from Harrisburg wanted either the dog to stay or his money back but Stephen kept the dog and said that he was keeping the money.  General Boude realized Stephen wasn’t giving up the money so he solved the dilemma by giving the kid $.50 and allowing Stephen to keep the dog.  Apparently, General Boude was always similarly generous to his new worker.

Stephen Smith’s second stroke of luck was that Columbia, according to the 1800 Census, had 10 free blacks and that population increased exponentially from 1800 to 1820.  By 1820 that black community numbered 288, close in number to the 308 blacks in Lancaster.

With a large free black population and sympathetic white Quaker community, slaves from the South headed for Columbia, an important link in the Underground Railroad before the Civil War. If Smith worked hard, he had the definite prospect of gaining his freedom from his generous owner and taking his place in the freed black community.

General Boude had purchased timberland upstream of a sawmill he owned in Columbia.  After the logs were floated down the Susquehanna, they were grappled out of the water, passed through the mill and turned into boards.  Smith was taught every aspect of the business from sawing to selling.

He did so well that by 20 years of age he was managing the General’s extensive business.  On reaching 21, Smith asked to be allowed to buy his freedom for $50.00.  The General accepted the proposal and Stephen Smith became a free black resident of Columbia.

Smith’s wealth started to accumulate rapidly.  He soon had his own lumberyard.  He associated with another successful free black, William Whipper, who looked after their business interests in Philadelphia.  Through joint ventures they acquired land in Pennsylvania and Canada.  They also owned other lumberyards, railroad cars, and a steamship on Lake Erie.  Reportedly, many of their resources were used to help black fugitive slaves escape to Canada.

Smith became a symbol of black social and economic mobility in Pennsylvania prior to the Civil War.  In 1820 Stephen Smith paid taxes on vacant lots worth $300 in Columbia; in 1829, he had 5 houses and 5 vacant lots; and in 1833, he had a total of 6 houses, 6 lots.  He became the largest stockholder of the Columbia Bank, and he hired whites to oversee it.  Happily, the value of all black owned Columbian real estate grew during the period from 1820 to 1833 indicating his was not an isolated success.

In 1831, a black slave in Virginia, by the name of Nat Turner started a rebellion that resulted in 10 whites being killed.  That rebellion kindled fear in a lot of white people and in 1834 riots against blacks took place in Columbia.

Smith became a special target for verbal and physical attacks because of his prosperity.  Some white townspeople held a meeting to see what could be done about decreasing the size of the black population in town.  After conducting an economic census of the black community, they suggested black property owners should sell their properties and businesses at fair market value and advised black residents not to harbor any more black transients.

Thirty-seven black property owners were identified and all expressed interest in selling at a fair market price, including Stephen Smith.  On September 13, 1831, Smith announced his intention to sell his various properties and close his businesses in Columbia.  Apparently, none of these transactions were completed because by 1835 Smith’s Columbia holdings had actually grown to 8 houses, 13 vacant lots and other additional property.  Besides that, he and Joshua P. B. Eddy jointly owned a house and a lot and an agent for Smith owned 5 houses and 5 lots.

Although Smith could rely on the Wright Family to stand with him in Columbia, by 1842 he had enough of the jealously of his white neighbors.  He traded places with his Philadelphia partner, William Whipper, and went to live in Philadelphia.  When he died in Philadelphia in 1873, his net worth was over $1,000,000, in 1873 dollars.

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