Person

Joshua B. Smith

Historical photo of a man in a suit standing next to a table with his right arm resting on it.
Abolitionist and Underground Railroad operative Joshua B. Smith.

Massachusetts Historical Society

Quick Facts

"The Prince of Caterers," Joshua Bowen Smith dedicated himself to the abolition movement and helping those seeking freedom on the Underground Railroad.

The details of Joshua B. Smith's early life remain obscure. Several of his obituaries and other records cite his birthplace as Pennsylvania, though other sources tell a different story. Over the years, he told census takers different birthplaces such as Virginia, Washington, D.C., and "unknown," and other sources state North Carolina. Most newspaper accounts refer to Smith as being of mixed Native, African, and English ancestry. Though various sources claim him as freeborn, and others refer to him as a "fugitive slave," Smith made few public statements about his early life. Though there is no clear consensus on Smith's status as a freedom seeker or not, there is no question of his commitment to helping people escape slavery. Once in Boston, he became one of the most prominent abolitionists and Underground Railroad operatives in the city.1

By most accounts, Smith first arrived in Boston in the mid-1830s. At this time, he worked as a waiter at the Mount Washington House, where he may have begun a friendship with the Shaw family.2 By 1843, he is listed as living with clothing dealer and activist John Coburn on Southac (now Phillips) Street.3 At some point, he began working for "Mr. Thacker, the leading colored caterer at that time, but soon established himself on his own account."4

As the head of his own business, Smith became "recognized as the Prince of Caterers, in these parts."5 He employed many people, including freedom seekers, and used his public position to "'keep an eye on slave hunters, who were always looking for fugitives in Boston restaurants.'"6 He also used his status in the city to take highly visible political stands. For example, he once refused to cater an event in honor of Daniel Webster, who had thrown his crucial support behind the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850.7 Likewise, during the Fugitive Slave Law case of Anthony Burns in 1854, "Mr. J.B. Smith, the caterer, (himself a fugitive,) could not induce his colored assistants to work in preparing refreshments for the troops" sent to the city to ensure the rendition of Burns.8

Smith's documented work as an Underground Railroad operative dates to the early 1840s. He joined the first Boston Vigilance Committee, established by abolitionist Charles Torrey in 1841, and later served in the 1846 iteration of the Vigilance Committee as a "Relief Agent."9 He also co-founded and served as vice-president of the New England Freedom Association, an African American organization that assisted freedom seekers.10 He later joined the Anti-Man-hunting League as well.11 With the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law in 1850, Smith met with others at the African Meeting House in a call to arms. According to the Liberator, Smith "hoped no one in that meeting would preach peace, for, as Patrick Henry said, 'there is no peace.'" He continued:

If liberty is not worth fighting for, it is not worth having. He advised every fugitive to arm himself with a revolver – if he could not buy one otherwise, to sell his coat for that purpose. As for himself, and he thus exhorted others, he should be kind and courteous to all, even the slave-dealer, until the moment of an attack upon his liberty. He would not be taken ALIVE, but upon the slave-catcher's head be the consequences. When he could not live here in Boston, a FREEMAN, in the language of Socrates, 'He had lived long enough.' Mr. Smith, in conclusion, made a demonstration of one mode of defence, which those who best know him say would be exemplified to the hilt.12

Smith said, "Be cool and deliberate...wait as they did at Bunker Hill, until you can see the white of the hunter's eye, and then give him 'old Kentuck'," referencing a weapon.13 Smith soon joined the third and final iteration of the Boston Vigilance Committee, serving as a member of the Executive Committee. He is listed several times in the account book of that organization as providing funds for freedom seekers to secure passage to Canada.14

In 1850, Smith married E.J. Sprague and they moved to Cambridge a few years later.15 During the Civil War, Smith "engaged in providing food for and catering to the wants of the thousands of soldiers passing through this city, towards the seat of war."16 Another account claimed Smith “was an active promoter of recruiting and was liberal to the soldier or his family who required his aid.”17 Following the Battle of Fort Wagner in 1863, Smith became one of the earliest and most vocal supporters of a monument to commemorate Robert Gould Shaw, a close friend and the colonel of the 54th Regiment who lost his life in the assault.

In October 1867, he became a member of the St. Andrew's Lodge of Freemasons, and the Grand Lodge of Massachusetts, "being the first colored man who ever held a seat in that body."18 He served as an elected member of the legislature in 1873 and 1874 where he chaired the Committee on Federal Relations. Smith also advised his close friend Senator Charles Sumner as he crafted what became the federal Civil Rights Act of 1875.19

After a life dedicated in service to others, Joshua Smith died of stomach cancer in 1879 and is buried at Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge.

Footnotes

  1. See Kathryn Grover, To Heal the Wounded Nation's Life: African Americans and the Robert Gould Shaw/54th Regiment Memorial, Special History Study, Saint-Gaudens National Historical Park, 2021. Page 1 and 2, n.1, and 596-620 for detailed discussion of Smith; for various accounts of his origins and early life see, Boston Daily Globe May 31, 1897, states "was born a slave upon a Virginia plantation;" "Recent Deaths," Boston Evening Transcript, July 7, 1879, 1 states "born of an Indian mother by an English father, in Coatsville, PA;" US Census 1850 states "Unknown;" Massachusetts Census 1855 "Penn.;" "Joshua B. Smith," Boston Daily Advertiser July 7, 1879 states "was never a slave;" The Elevator, San Francisco, California, August 22, 1874 states “who was an escaped slave;” Boston Evening Transcript, September 27, 1897, states "the colored fugitive from slavery, Joshua B. Smith;" "Theodore Parker's Bettine," Boston Evening Transcript, July 12, 1897, states "He was a Conestoga Indian, brought up in Pennsylvania by a Quaker lady;" Boston Evening Transcript, May 29, 1854, 2 states "Mr. J.B. Smith, the caterer, (himself a fugitive,);" Emancipator and Republican, October 10, 1850 states "Mr. J.B. Smith, fugitive slave, next addressed the meeting;" John Daniels, In Freedom's Birthplace: A Study of the Boston Negroes (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1914), 449, states "who had come to Boston as a fugitive from North Carolina in 1847."
  2. Kathryn Grover and Janine Da Silva, "Boston African American National Historic Site Historic Resource Study," 2002, 1.
  3. Grover and Da Silva, "Boston African American National Historic Site Historic Resource Study," 91. NPS maps use this address as Smith's geographical location.
  4. "Recent Deaths," Boston Evening Transcript, July 7, 1879, 1.
  5. National Anti-Slavery Standard, September 25, 1851.
  6. Grover, To Heal the Wounded Nation's Life, 158.
  7. Liberator, February 7, 1851, 2.
  8. Boston Evening Transcript, May 29, 1854, 2.
  9. Dean Grodzins, "'Constitution or No Constitution, Law or No Law!': The Boston Vigilance Committees, 1842-1861," Published in Massachusetts and the Civil War: The Commonwealth and National Disunion edited by Matthew Mason, Katheryn P. Viens, and Conrad Edick Wright (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2015) 58 and 61; Manisha Sinha, The Slave's Cause: A History of Abolition (New Haven: Yale, 2016), 393; Irving H. Bartlett, "Abolitionists, Fugitives, and Imposters in Boston,1846-1847," The New England Quarterly, Mar., 1982, 55, no. 1, pp. 97-110, 108.
  10. Grover and Da Silva, "Boston African American National Historic Site Historic Resource Study," 90.
  11. Sinha, The Slave's Cause, 538.
  12. "Declaration of Sentiments of the Colored Citizens of Boston on the Fugitive Slave Bill," Liberator, October 11, 1850.
  13. Emancipator and Republican, October 10, 1850.
  14. Francis Jackson, Treasurers Accounts Book of the Boston Vigilance Committee, May 3, 1851 states "for Joseph Russetts fare to Canada" 18; December 5, 1851 states "for Mrs Calling to Canada," 20; November 1, 1852 states "for John Williams to Canada," 22; April 11, 1855 states "for passage of Joseph Ashe wife to Canada," 34.
  15. Liberator, March 29, 1850, 3.
  16. "Theodore Parker's Bettine," Boston Evening Transcript, July 12, 1897.
  17. "Recent Deaths," Boston Evening Transcript, July 7, 1879, 1.
  18. "Recent Deaths," Boston Evening Transcript, July 7, 1879, 1.
  19. "Joshua Bowen Smith," Mount Auburn Cemetery, accessed March 2022, https://mountauburn.org/joshua-bowen-smith-1813-1879/

Boston African American National Historic Site

Last updated: March 24, 2022