Historical Markers
Stephen Smith Historical Marker
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Stephen Smith

Philadelphia and its Countryside/Lehigh Valley


Marker Location:
1050 Belmont Avenue, Philadelphia

Dedication Date:
June 19, 1991

Behind the Marker

A successful businessman in Columbia, Stephen Smith eventually moved to Philadelphia and became a prominent member of the free black community there.
Stephen Smith and 1824 advertisement for his Columbia, PA, lumber yard.
Stephen Smith was born a slave in Dauphin County in 1795, fifteen years after the state had first passed its gradual abolition act. In 1804, he was sold to a new master, a lumber merchant, who brought him to nearby Columbia, in Lancaster County, separating the young boy from his mother. Smith worked in the lumberyard, earned some money, and eventually saved enough not only to pay $100 for his freedom, but also to purchase $50 worth of lumber to start his own business.

Despite widespread prejudice, Smith developed a lumber and real estate empire with partner markerWilliam Whipper and became one of the wealthiest African Americans in nineteenth-century Pennsylvania. In 1857, Dun and Co., a commercial reporting agency in America that evaluated local businessmen and women, estimated the annual sales of Smith and Whipper's company at $100,000 per year and labeled Smith "King of the Darkies."

Located just north of the markerMason-Dixon Line, which separated Pennsylvania from Maryland and the slaveholding states, Columbia held an important geographic location on the Underground Railroad. Since 1790, Columbia had included a proportionately large free black population and by 1820, the black community had grown to 288 people. Its citizens were early activists in the abolitionist movement, establishing the Columbia Abolition Society in 1818. For these reasons, people came to regard Columbia as a place where free blacks might prosper. But like most free black communities, Columbia encountered its share of racial violence in the decades before the Civil War. In 1834 and 1835, race riots took place in the town, making a particular target of Stephen Smith, who was singled out for verbal and physical attacks.
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