Honorable Bro. John J. Smith was born a free man in Richmond, Virginia, on November 2, 1820. 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. In the 1840s, he opened a barbershop at the corner of Howard and Bulfinch Streets on Beacon Hill. To further his education, he went to night school.
In the 1840s, Smith campaigned for the desegregation of Boston’s 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.
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.
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. 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 our worthy brother George Latimer in 1842.
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.
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.
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. 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.
In 1844, Smith co-founded the Bay State lodge #814 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 Prince Hall Masons. He was also a trustee of the A M. E. Zion Church.
Smith reportedly spent time in California during the Gold Rush of 1849. In 1878, he moved to 86 Pinckney Street, where he lived until 1893. From there, he moved to Jamaica Plain, and around 1900 moved in with his two daughters at 45 Wellesley Park in Dorchester.
He died at his home in Dorchester on November 4, 1906, aged 86. 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.
We owe it to ourselves to apply this story to our lives concerning Oddfellowship! The former slave he tried to liberate became his Brother in Oddfellowship and it could be assumed that it was George Latimer’s choice because of Bro. Smith living his oath……In Friendship Love and Truth