Elizabeth H. Smith: Beyond the Classroom

Published in People in Preservation.

And a Racial Schism within the Rhode Island Women’s Club

After the successful fight to desegregate Rhode Island public schools in 1866, the Meeting Street primary school continued to serve as a de-facto segregated school for children of color living in the neighborhood, and Elizabeth Howland Smith remained on as its principal and lead teacher. Revered by her community as the “best teacher in the city,” the education offered at Smith’s school was regarded as better than any young students of color could expect in the newly integrated school system, and few if any white parents of the era would send their children to be taught by a woman of color, regardless of her skills or reputation.

A profile of Smith stated that she “loved learning not only for learning’s sake but for the privilege it gave her to aid in developing the mental growth and mental strength of the immature though aspiring.”[i] But beyond her leadership at the school, newly uncovered evidence points to her faithful commitment to the civic life of Providence, which brought her into contact with some of the most powerful women in the city. 

By the 1860s, the Old Brick School House was also functioning as one of the city’s five evening schools, with this location serving the local Black population specifically. According to the RI Schoolmaster, this was “in accordance with the wishes of the colored people, who preferred being by themselves.”[ii] The scholars were mostly adults (as opposed to teenagers at the other, white evening schools), with an average age of 30, and many worked in domestic service or had formerly been enslaved in the South. Smith was sporadically involved in the teaching of this school as well, serving as principal in 1866-67 and an assistant in 1870.

Elizabeth Smith was also engaged in non-school-related activities, giving a number of dramatic public readings from “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” in the 1870s to raise funds for local Baptist churches.[iii] An attendee described her manner as “dignified and self-possessed, her voice flexible and pleasing.”[iv] It seems that, in addition to her professional standing, she was a much-loved and admired citizen, at least among Providence’s Black community. Reminiscing about Elizabeth, her friend Maritcha Lyons recalled that “her endowments, her culture, her high ethical standard, her genuine charity gained for her in her maturity a more than local reputation. To the last she maintained a lively interest in all groups working for uplift.”[v]

Smith’s role as a civically engaged and well-respected community member and her identity as a woman of color came to a notable intersection in an incident at the Rhode Island Woman’s Club in early 1877.[vi] The club, which was founded as a “recognized centre for social and mental culture” for women in 1876[vii], had as its founding members many prominent and politically progressive women, including noted abolitionist and women’s rights activist Elizabeth Buffum Chace. Chace had known Elizabeth Smith as a “worthy co-laborer” in the fight for civil rights[viii] from her time as a member of the Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society in Providence during the 1840s. Shortly after the founding of the Woman’s Club, Elizabeth Smith’s name was submitted anonymously as a candidate for membership at a club board meeting that took place at a private home on Meeting Street, a stone’s throw from the Meeting Street School. Unlike white candidates, her name was tabled for six months, and ultimately, she was denied admittance to the club.[ix]

Minutes from the October 3, 1877, meeting of the Board of Directors of the RI Woman’s Club noting the rejection of Elizabeth Smith’s membership

According to Chace, this rejection was due to influential board officer and suffragist Fanny Palmer’s belief that “people of different races should not mingle together.”[x] Palmer and many other club members came from a younger generation of women’s rights activists who had not participated in the earlier anti-slavery movement.[xi] This race-based discrimination against Smith by the club’s leadership led Chace to resign her own membership in the club[xii] in protest of the actions of those “who for years had been pleading the cause of disfranchised womanhood, and now, for the sake of drawing into their circle women of the conservative, prejudiced classes, were willing to reject and to crush a woman more than disfranchised, worse than ill-paid, more outraged than themselves.”[xiii]

This episode demonstrates that, despite her many accomplishments and connections with prominent local citizens, Elizabeth’s race still frequently made her a persona non grata in Providence’s white community. As a woman living in the 19th century, she already faced enormous obstacles and legal discrimination in her day-to-day life. If she had not also lived at a time when her skin color further barred her from full participation in civil society, we can only imagine the professional and social position a woman of her talents, dedication, and character might have achieved.

Research and writing by Kate Blankenship with special thanks to Elizabeth Stevens, editor of Newport History, for her invaluable guidance with this research. This piece continues PPS’s work to uncover the unknown and untold stories of Black history at our headquarters building and on College Hill. 
To learn more about the fight for civil rights by white and Black women in Rhode Island, check out “Historical Perspectives on Woman Suffrage: Rhode Island and Beyond,” a virtual panel hosted by URI College of Arts and Sciences.

[i] “Elizabeth N. Smith,” Homespun Heroines and Other Women of Distinction, ed. Hallie Q. Brown, 1926

[ii] “Report of the Special Committee On Evening Schools In The City of Providence,” Rhode Island Schoolmaster, 1867

[iii] “Benefit” for the Shiloh Baptist Church, Providence Evening Press, January 7, 1874

[iv] “Olneyville – Readings,” Providence Evening Press, May 12, 1873

[v] “Elizabeth N. Smith,” Homespun Heroines and Other Women of Distinction, ed. Hallie Q. Brown, 1926

[vi] “Elizabeth H. Smith,” Historical Perspectives on Woman Suffrage: Rhode Island and Beyond, virtual panel with Elizabeth Stevens, Elisa Miller, and Emily Lynch, hosted by URI College of Arts and Sciences

[vii] First Record Book of the Board of Directors of the Rhode Island Woman’s Club, 1876-1878

[viii] Elizabeth Buffum Chace, 1806-1899; her life and its environment, Lillie Buffum Chace Wyman, 1914, pg 237

[ix] See note vii

[x] Elizabeth Buffum Chace, 1806-1899; her life and its environment, Lillie Buffum Chace Wyman, 1914, pg 79

[xi] See note vi

[xii] Anti-Slavery Reminiscences, Elizabeth Buffum Chace, 1891, pg. 17

[xiii] Elizabeth Buffum Chace, 1806-1899; her life and its environment, Lillie Buffum Chace Wyman, 1914, pg 80

© 2024 Providence Preservation Society. All rights reserved. Design by J. Hogue at Highchair designhaus, with development & support by Kay Belardinelli.