John J. Smith

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John James Smith
Member of the Massachusetts House of Representatives
from the 6th Suffolk district
In office
In office
Serving with Linus Child and Harvey Jewell
Succeeded byGeorge Lewis Ruffin
Hugh Flood
In office
Preceded byHarvey Jewell
George Lewis Ruffin
Hugh Flood
Member of the Boston Common Council
In office
Preceded byGeorge Lewis Ruffin
Succeeded byMalcolm Greenough
Henry W. Swift
Personal details
Born(1820-11-02)November 2, 1820
Richmond, Virginia
DiedNovember 4, 1906(1906-11-04) (aged 86)
Dorchester, Boston
Resting placeForest Hills Cemetery
Political partyRepublican
SpouseGeorgianna O. Smith
  • Elizabeth
  • Georgianna
  • Florence
  • Hamilton
  • Adelaide
  • Harriet
Known forAbolitionism

John James Smith (1820 – 1906) was a barber shop owner, abolitionist, a three-term Massachusetts state representative, and one of the first African-American members of the Boston Common Council. A Republican, he served three terms in the Massachusetts House of Representatives. He was born in Richmond Virginia. He took part in the California Gold Rush.[1]

During the 1840s and 50s, Smith's barbershop on the north slope of Beacon Hill was a center of abolitionist activity, and provided shelter to freedom seekers on the Underground Railroad. During the Civil War, Smith recruited soldiers for the black regiments of Massachusetts.

While serving on the Boston Common Council in 1878, Smith was responsible for the hiring of Boston's first black police officer.


Early life and education[edit]

Smith was born free in Richmond, Virginia, on November 2, 1820. At as youth he heard stories about Boston, and made up his mind to settle there. By the time he was 20, he had saved enough money to move.[2][note 1] In the 1840s, he opened a barbershop at the corner of Howard and Bulfinch Streets on Beacon Hill.[3] To further his education, he went to night school.[2]

Abolitionism and civil rights work[edit]

In the 1840s, Smith campaigned for the desegregation of Boston public schools. He was a supporter of Benjamin F. Roberts, who unsuccessfully sued the city in 1850 for the right to enroll his daughter in a white school.[2]

Smith's barbershop became a gathering place for local abolitionists, including Lewis Hayden and Charles Sumner. He was active in the New England Freedom Association, an organization that assisted refugees from slavery. After the Fugitive Slave Act was passed in 1850, Smith sheltered refugees and helped with their escape plans. Notably, he sheltered Ellen and William Craft during their stay in Boston.[3]

On February 15, 1851, Smith was one of the activists who helped free Shadrach Minkins from the court house in Boston, where he was being held under the Fugitive Slave Act. Two days later, he drove Minkins by buggy from a safe house in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to another in Concord.[4] Smith was one of several people arrested in connection with the rescue, but could not be positively identified and was released. He was also involved in the failed attempt to rescue George Latimer in 1842.[2]

During the Civil War, he was appointed by Governor John Albion Andrew to recruit officers for the Massachusetts "colored regiments."[2][3] Later he served as a provost marshal in Washington, D.C.[2]

Political career[edit]

Smith was one of the earliest Republicans in Massachusetts, and attended their first state party convention in Worcester. In 1868, he became the third African American to sit on the Massachusetts legislature when he was elected to represent Ward 6 in the state house of representatives. He was reelected in 1869 and 1872, making him the first black legislator to serve more than one term in Massachusetts.[2][5][6]

In 1878, Smith was elected to the Boston Common Council, where he served for "a number of years" as one of its first African-American members. During his first year on the council, Smith was responsible for the hiring of Horatio J. Homer, the Boston Police Department's first black officer.[2][5][7]

Personal life and legacy[edit]

Smith met his wife Georgianna, a multiracial woman from Nova Scotia, in the 1840s. The couple's first home was on Wilson's Lane in Boston.[3] They raised six children. Their daughter Elizabeth graduated from the Boston Normal School and began teaching at the Phillips School in the early 1870s; she was likely the first black teacher in an integrated Boston public school.[2][8]

In 1844, Smith co-founded the Bay State lodge of the Grand United Order of Odd Fellows. He was also a Prince Hall Mason. At the time of his death, he was reportedly the oldest Odd Fellow in the world, and the oldest past grand master of the "colored Masons."[9] He was also a trustee of the A M. E. Zion Church.[2]

Smith reportedly spent time in California during the Gold Rush of 1849.[2][note 2] In 1878, he moved to 86 Pinckney Street, where he lived until 1893.[10] From there, he moved to Jamaica Plain, and around 1900 moved in with his two daughters at 45 Wellesley Park in Dorchester.[2]

He died at his home in Dorchester on November 4, 1906, aged 86.[2] His funeral was held in the A. M. E. Zion Church on Columbus Avenue, with Masonic services. He was buried in the Forest Hills Cemetery.[9]

The John J. Smith House at 86 Pinckney Street is a Boston African American National Historic Site and is on the Black Heritage Trail.[10]


  1. ^ According to some sources, Smith arrived in Boston in 1848. His Boston Globe obituary indicates he arrived in 1840. In 1845, the Liberator reported that Smith was selling tickets to a fundraiser for the Boston-based New England Freedom Association.
  2. ^ The Globe claims he spent "several years" in California, which contradicts the earlier claim, in the same article, that he was involved in the rescue of Shadrach Minkins in 1851.



  1. ^ "State Library of Massachusetts: Massachusetts Legislators: John James Smith". 4 March 2013.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m Boston Globe, November 4, 1906.
  3. ^ a b c d Snodgrass 2015, p. 498.
  4. ^ Collison 2009, p. 132.
  5. ^ a b Hayden 1991, p. 93.
  6. ^ Connolly 2013.
  7. ^ Rosso 2013.
  8. ^ National Park Service.
  9. ^ a b Boston Globe, November 7, 1906.
  10. ^ a b NPS Brochure.


External links[edit]