John J. Smith House // c.1840

Born free in Richmond, Virginia, John J. Smith (1820–1906) moved to Boston in the 1840s. Upon his arrival in Boston, he found the city was much more accepting of African Americans than the South, where slavery was still rampant. He opened a barbershop on the north slope of Beacon Hill, which at the time, had become a diverse neighborhood of free blacks and wealthy abolitionists. His shop became a gathering place for abolitionist activity. After the Fugitive Slave Act was passed in 1850, Smith sheltered refugees and helped with their escape plans. The Fugitive Slave Act was drafted by Senator James Mason of Virginia, and allowed slave catchers to travel north to bring escaped slaves back to chains. In addition, any person aiding a runaway slave by providing food or shelter was subject to six months’ imprisonment and a $1,000 fine (over $30,000 in today’s dollars). During the Civil War, Smith recruited for the Black Massachusetts regiments and 5th Calvary, helping bolster the fight against slavery and confederacy. After the War, 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 re-elected in 1869 and 1872, making him the first black legislator to serve more than one term in Massachusetts. In 1878, Smith was elected to the Boston Common (City) Council, where he served for “a number of years” as one of its first African-American members, the same year he moved into this house in Beacon Hill. 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. Smith lived at this house until 1893 before moving to Jamaica Plain and Dorchester where he died at the age of 86.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s