John J. Smith – barber, abolitionist, and state legislator – lived at 86 Pinckney Street from 1878 to 1893. Born in Virginia, Smith moved to Boston in the 1840s. Except for a short time in California searching for gold, Smith spent his pre-Civil War years working as a barber. His shop played an important role in Boston’s 19th century Black community; it served as a center for community organizing and abolitionist activities. United States Senator Charles Sumner, an ardent abolitionist and friend, frequently patronized Smith’s barbershop. When Sumner could not be found at his home or office, he could usually be located at Smith’s shop.
Smith, his wife Georgiana, and other leaders such as Benjamin F. Roberts worked in the 1840s and 1850s in the fight for equal school rights. Boston’s public schools became integrated in 1855 and Smith’s daughter Elizabeth, in the early 1870s, became the first person of African descent to teach in Boston’s integrated schools. John Smith also worked to fight slavery and other injustices. He played a key role in the rescue of Shadrach Minkins, arrested under the Fugitive Slave Law in February 1851.
During the Civil War, Smith recruited for the Massachusetts African American regiments and for the Fifth Calvary, also an all-Black unit. Smith served in the Massachusetts House of Representatives, as its third African American member, in 1868, 1869, and 1872. Georgiana, his wife, worked during that time for the Freedman’s Bureau. In 1878, Smith became the first African American appointed to serve on the Boston Common Council where he successfully worked to have the first African American appointed to the Boston police force. John J. Smith’s life, filled with service to his community through business, activism, and politics, ended on 4 November 1906 with family in Dorchester.
Note: The John J. Smith House, a site on the Black Heritage Trail®, is a private residence and is not open to the public.
Collison, Gary. Shadrach Minkins: From Fugitive Slave to Citizen. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997.
Daniels, John. In Freedom’s Birthplace: A Study of the Boston Negroes. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1914. Reprint. New York: Arno Press and the New York Times, 1969.
“Recent Deaths: John J. Smith.” Boston Evening Transcript, 5 November 1906.
“Historic Resource Study Boston African American National Historic Site” by Kathryn Grover and Janine V. da Silva
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Last updated: September 23, 2020