Amanda Smith

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Amanda Smith, from an 1898 publication.
Amanda Smith.jpg

Amanda Berry Smith (January 23, 1837 – February 24, 1915)[1] was a former slave who funded The Amanda Smith Orphanage and Industrial Home for Abandoned and Destitute Colored Children. She was referred to as "God's image carved in ebony".

Early life[edit]

Smith was born to slaves in Long Green, Maryland, a small town in Baltimore County. Her father's name was Samuel Berry and her mother's name was Mariam Matthews. The Smiths had thirteen children.[2] Her father was a well-trusted man, and his master’s widow trusted him enough to place him in charge of her farm. After his duties for the day were done, Mr. Berry was allowed to go out and earn extra money for himself and his family. Many nights he would go without sleeping because he was busy making brooms and husk mats for the Baltimore market to make extra cash. He was devoted to the goal of freedom. After first purchasing his freedom, he made it his mission to buy his family's. [3] After his family's freedom was secured, the Smiths settled in Pennsylvania.[2]


Growing up, Amanda had the advantage of learning to read and write. “Her father made it a regular practice on Sunday mornings to read to his family from the Bible. Her mother helped her to learn reading before she was eight and was sent to school.” Unlike many other enslaved children and adults, Amanda had the privilege of learning at an early age. Amanda and her younger brother attended school at the age of eight. The school only held summer sessions and after six weeks of attending, the school was forced to close. Five years later, at the age of 13, they had been given another option of attending school. However, the school was five miles from their home and they would only be taught if there was time after the teachers gave the white kids their lesson. The Smith siblings felt that it was not worth traveling in the cold to receive lessons only if time was permitted. After two weeks of attending school, they dropped out and were taught at home by their parents and sometimes taught themselves. [4] With only having three and a half months of formal schooling, Amanda went to work near York, Pennsylvania, as the servant of a widow with five children. While there, she attended a revival service at the Methodist Episcopal Church.

Adult life[edit]

Amanda worked hard as a cook and a washerwoman to provide for herself and her daughter after her husband was killed in the American Civil War. By the time Smith was thirty-two, she had lost two husbands and four of her five children. Attending religious camp meetings and revivals helped Smith work through her grief and avoid depression. She immersed herself in the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church.[2]

Prayer became a way of life for her as she trusted God for shoes, the money to buy her sister's freedom, and food for her family. She became well known for her beautiful voice and inspired teaching and hence, opportunities to evangelize in the South and West opened up for her. African-American women in the nineteenth century took the way they dressed very seriously and so did others. Being a preacher and traveling as much as Amanda did, she thought out her dress carefully. Wherever she went, she wore a plain poke bonnet and a brown or black Quaker wrapper, and she carried her own carpetbag suitcase. The appearances of women in the nineteenth century have been described as “[Especially] fraught with volatile meanings, as the line between seemingly overly sexual or appearing presumptuously dressed above one’s station was a fine one.” African-American women struggled with receiving the respect they deserved even if they dressed the part of a lady. This was due to “Shadowed stereotypes bred in slavery of wanton Jezebels and pious Mammies…” If free African-American women dressed out of their respective class, judgments would be made against them. [5]

In 1878, Smith arranged for her daughter, Mazie, to study in England. The two traveled overseas and stayed in England for two years.[2] On the journey over, the captain invited her to conduct a religious service on board and she was so modest that the other passengers spread word of her.

She next traveled to and ministered in India, where she stayed for eighteen months.[2] Smith then spent eight years in Africa, working with churches and evangelizing. She traveled to Liberia and West Africa. Smith also expanded her family by adopting two African boys.[2] While in Africa she suffered from repeated attacks of "African Fever" but persisted in her work. As a strong proponent of the Temperance Movement both in Africa and in the United States, she was invited by noted temperance advocate Rev. Dr. Theodore Ledyard Cuyler to preach at his Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church in Brooklyn, New York, then the largest church in its denomination, on her return to America.

Amanda funded The Amanda Smith Orphanage and Industrial Home for Abandoned and Destitute Colored Children. It was an institution for the poor and friendless colored children. Located in North Harvey, in a suburban neighborhood in Chicago, the orphanage opened on June 28, 1899.[2] The institution provided a home for children to become self-reliant. Amanda traveled many states to help gather money to support her work. “Support for this institution depended on interracial cooperation for fund-raising and an advisory board. To raise funds for the initial costs, Smith enlisted Methodist interracial cooperation across the country.”[citation needed] She was dedicated and put forth a lot of energy for the home. However, she soon met conflict with the orphanage due to many problems such as financial, a fire that destroyed the building, conflict between Smith and the staff, complaints from neighbors, and failed inspections by the orphan home investigators. Two years following Smith’s death, another fire broke out in the home killing two girls. The building was closed for good.[6]

Later life and death[edit]

In the early years of the 20th century, Amanda Smith continued to visit various nations and gained a reputation as "God's image carved in ebony." She retired to Sebring, Florida in 1912 due to failing health.

Her autobiography was published in 1893, titled An Autobiography, The Story of the Lord's Dealing with Mrs. Amanda Smith, the Colored Evangelist Containing an Account of her Life Work of Faith, and Her Travels in America, England, Ireland, Scotland, India, and Africa, as An Independent Missionary.[2]

She died in 1915 at the age of 78.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "The Final Ministry of Amanda Berry Smith". Illinois Heritage. Retrieved May 18, 2007.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h Johnson, Yvonne (2010). Feminist Frontiers: Women Who Shaped the Midwest. Kirksville, Missouri: Truman State University Press.
  3. ^ Ruth Bogin, and Bert James Loewenberg, "Amanda Berry Smith." Black Women in Nineteenth-Century American Life: Their Words, Their Thoughts, Their Feelings, (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1976.), 143
  4. ^ Ruth Bogin, and Bert James Loewenberg, "Amanda Berry Smith." Black Women in Nineteenth-Century American Life: Their Words, Their Thoughts, Their Feelings, (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1976.), 142
  5. ^ Klassen, Pamela E. "The Robes of Womanhood: Dress and Authenticity among African American Methodist Women in the Nineteenth Century." Religion & American Culture 14, no. 1 (Winter 2004) America: History & Life, EBSCOhost (Dec 20, 2013), 43
  6. ^ Pope-Levison, Priscilla. "Methodist Interracial Cooperation In The Progressive Era: Amanda Berry Smith And Emma Ray." Methodist History 49, no. 2 (January 2011) America: History & Life, EBSCOhost (Dec 20, 2013). Pg. 72

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