Our region is defined by those who came before us
“With these thoughts I leave, asking you to give your hearts to wisdom, restraining yourself from selfishness, and living for the good of others.”
– James L. Smith
Every February since 1976 the United States has celebrated the achievements of African Americans during Black History Month. The month-long celebration puts those accomplishments and milestones into focus via the media and in classrooms.
Today, we remember James L. Smith, of Norwich, an escaped slave who traveled the Underground Railroad to freedom in the north, eventually coming to Norwich where he raised a family and was successful in business. In 1881, Smith published his vivid and poignant “Autobiography of James L. Smith, Including, also, Reminiscences of Slave Life, Recollections of the War, Education of Freemen, Causes of the Exodus, etc.”
I first learned about James Lindsay Smith through the TLGV publication “Notable and Notorious: Historically Interesting People from The Last Green Valley.” In September, I attended Norwich History Day on the Norwichtown Green. The Norwich Historical Society was selling several used books, including one I could not pass up – the “Autobiography of James L. Smith.”
In celebration of the 1976 bicentennial, the Historical Society reprinted Smith’s autobiography, which included an introduction by eminent black historian Dr. John E. Rogers of the University of Hartford. I happily purchased a copy signed by Rogers and included it among my books on regional history. Rogers’ introduction puts into perspective the unique history of African Americans in Norwich, as well as the importance of Smith’s autobiography.
Rogers wrote, “the Autobiography of James Smith is very important because only from such accounts are we able to discern the climate of the period. With Smith’s narrative one can see the full picture — the pressure and hard life of slavery in the South; the kindness and hospitality of the North of that day. Moreover, Smith’s experience demonstrates that an integral part of early America was a sense of humanity which hopefully today is not on the wane.”
Smith was born a slave in Northern Neck, Va. An accident as a boy left him lame and unable to work in the fields. He was trained as a shoemaker and worked at it and other jobs for several owners. Eventually, he was able to save some money from sales he kept from his owner in a shop that was less supervised. With this money in hand he began to plan his escape to freedom.
In spring 1838, Smith and two friends, Zip and Lorenzo, ran away from their masters, first by crossing the Coan River in a canoe and then by appropriating a larger boat to sail up Chesapeake Bay to Maryland. From Maryland they walked to Delaware where the three young men purchased passage on a ship for Philadelphia. His two friends signed on as sailors on another ship heading to Europe, and Smith was left on his own.
In Philadelphia, he was very fortunate to meet a Quaker abolitionist and free blacks who worked together as part of the Underground Railroad. They gave Smith shelter and devised a plan to help him get to Springfield, Mass. They helped him get passage on a steamboat to New York and provided him with letters of introduction to David Ruggles, a native of Norwich and prominent member of the African-American community in New York.
Ruggles, in turn, provided Smith with letters of introduction to two people, Mr. Foster in Hartford and Dr. Osgood in Springfield. Ruggles helped him book passage on another steamboat heading up the Connecticut River, and Smith safely arrived in Springfield within two weeks escaping slavery in Virginia.
In Springfield, Dr. Osgood helped Smith find work with a wholesale shoe dealer. Smith attended school in Wilbraham while working as a shoemaker to earn room and board. He also earned a license to preach.
While in Wilbraham, Smith became acquainted with abolitionist Dr. Hudson and traveled with him throughout Connecticut and parts of Massachusetts including Boston, speaking at anti-slavery lectures. It was at one such program that he met Emeline Minerva. They were married in 1841 and moved to Norwich in 1842.
In Norwich, Smith started a successful business making and selling shoes. At first James and Emeline lived in a tenement on Franklin Street, but within a few years they had saved enough money to purchase half a frame house on School Street, and later a larger house on Oak Street.
He and his wife had three daughters and a son. The son carried on the shoemaking trade and two of the daughters, Louise and Emma, attended Norwich Free Academy and became teachers.
His autobiography includes his recollections of the Civil War, the Emancipation Proclamation, his fears regarding the Fugitive Slave Law and insights about race, religion and politics.
The story of James Lindsay Smith is a compelling, personal story of determination and perseverance. While he found critical help in the north, he also encountered more discrimination, and yet the book is filled with hope for a time when black Americans would no longer struggle as he did. I highly recommend Smith’s stirring and moving autobiography detailing his journey from bondage to a fruitful life of freedom.
The “Autobiography of James L. Smith” is out of print but can be found in both paperback and hardcover at Biblio, https://www.biblio.com, as well as other on-line sources of used books. You may also want to check your local library to see if it is available.
We are fortunate to live in The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor — a region rich in natural and cultural resources. The fascinating history and impactful stories of those who lived here help define who we are today. One such story is that of James L. Smith.
Information for this column was gleaned from the “Autobiography of James L. Smith,” TLGV’s publication “Notable and Notorious,” and from the article “James Lindsay Smith Takes the Underground Railroad,” written by Nancy Finlay of the Connecticut Historical Society, and can be found at ttps://connecticuthistory.org.
Bill Reid is chief ranger of The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor and has lived in the region for more than 35 years. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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