“The Best Teacher in the City”

Published in People in Preservation.

A Biography of Elizabeth H. Smith, Black Principal of the Meeting Street Primary School

In March of 1865, a year before Rhode Island’s schools were legally desegregated, an opinion piece appeared in a Providence newspaper arguing that separate schools for Black children were just as good as those for whites. The author asserted,

“Our Meeting street school, under the separate instruction of Mrs. Smith, herself a colored person of refinement and education, has attained the proud position of being the first school in America in the department of spelling…and that in mental arithmetic it stands second to none in New England.”[1]

As the debate over school segregation raged throughout the early 1860s, many newspaper articles and letters of opinion from both sides of the issue cited “Mrs. Smith” and her capable leadership of the Meeting Street School for “colored children.” But who was this woman at the center of the conversation and how had her teaching abilities become central to arguments both for and against equal educational access? 

310, 308, and 306 Benefit Street

Elizabeth Howland Smith, nee Brown, was born in Providence in the early 1820s into a middle-class Black family. Her father was a formerly enslaved, South Kingstown-born mariner named Cupid Brown, who worked as a steward on trading vessels belonging to prominent local merchant Edward Carrington.[2] The Browns lived in the rear of the multi-family residence located at 156 Benefit Street, (today 306 Benefit), one of the few Black households on Benefit street at the time.[3] Elizabeth was educated privately as a child and later attended Prudence Crandall’s school for “young Ladies and little Misses of color” in Canterbury, Connecticut from 1833-34.[4] The Canterbury Female Boarding School was the first private school for Black girls in the United States and was forced to close after only a year due to the local community’s violent antagonism and legal troubles. Elizabeth returned to Providence and is listed as receiving private instruction in the 1835 city census.[5]

Cupid Brown and family in the 1835 Providence census (note his two children are recorded as attending private school)

By this time, the School Committee of Providence had established a free public school for Black children in the Old Brick School House on Meeting Street.[6] Although originally led by a white teacher, in 1836, the School Committee appointed Ransom Parker, a Black man, as principal of the school. In 1838, a teenaged Elizabeth H. Brown was appointed assistant at the Meeting Street Grammar School, becoming (in all likelihood) the first Black woman public school teacher in Providence and beginning her almost 50-year career in education.[7] In 1842, she was promoted to “preceptress” (i.e. principal), of the newly created primary school in the same building.[8] In addition to her teaching career, Elizabeth actively participated in community affairs, as a member of the Providence Ladies Anti-Slavery Society and a donor to the Association for the Benefit of Colored Children.[9]

244 Transit Street (formerly 135 Transit)

Sometime before 1848, she met and married John Nary Smith, a Black man from Maryland who was a servant in the Carrington family house on Williams Street.[10] As an indicator of Elizabeth’s family’s relatively high social status for citizens of color, Elizabeth and John were married by the Rev. Dr. Francis Wayland, who was the president of Brown University and later parson of the First Baptist Church.[11] Although property ownership was still uncommon for free people of color of this era, John had purchased an undeveloped plot of land on Transit Street in 1847 for $400[12] and built a modest home at 135 Transit Street (today 244 Transit) by 1852.[13] A few years later, the young couple purchased a larger home right around the corner at 22 East Street, where the Smith family lived until the mid-1870s.[14]

Unlike most married middle-class white women of this time, Elizabeth continued her work as the principal and sole teacher of the Meeting Street Primary School, as her salary was likely essential to the maintenance of her household. Teaching appears to have been more than a livelihood, and Elizabeth’s talent as an educator is evident even in the scant records of her life’s work. In 1859, after hearing reports of the Meeting Street Primary School students’ spelling prowess, the editor of The R.I. Schoolmaster made a visit to test the “extravagant stories” for himself. Four young scholars aged 10 and under spelled dozens of words like “idiosyncrasy,” “hypochondriac,” and “supercilious” with only a single error.[15] During a demonstration at the State Teachers’ Institute meeting the same year, Elizabeth’s students out-spelled the gathered teachers handily.[16] In providing her students with an exemplary education, Elizabeth earned the respect of local parents who unsuccessfully petitioned the school committee to promote her to assistant of the Meeting Street Grammar School in 1864. [17]

Reference to parents’ petition to promote Elizabeth Smith in November 18, 1864 School Committee minutes

 

During the 1850s and ’60s, mounting public debate in Rhode Island centered on the “colored school question,” with frequent opinion pieces appearing in local newspapers and the School Committee held several special meetings to hear public testimony. The debate came to a head in 1865 when the well-to-do Lyons family submitted an appeal to the Governor of Rhode Island on behalf of their daughter Maritcha, who was refused entrance to Providence High School because of her race.[18]

Maritcha Remond Lyons

This appeal — combined with the years of activism of the Black community, and shifting public sentiment among white Rhode Islanders (especially following the Civil War) — ultimately led the General Assembly to pass a statute outlawing separate schools for children of color.[19] In her memoir, Maritcha Lyons specifically highlighted the assistance that Elizabeth Smith provided to her family, stating that “she did not hesitate to speak and to write against drawing a color line in civil affairs” despite her official position as a teacher in a “caste school.”[20]

With the official desegregation of all schools in Providence, many Black citizens became concerned about the professional future of “the worthy and faithful teacher of the Meeting Street Primary School.” Unlikely to be hired as a teacher in the newly integrated public schools, local parents worried that Elizabeth, known as “the best teacher in [the] city,” would soon be out of work and their children would receive an inferior education elsewhere.[21] In response, many parents in the Meeting Street area organized a petition requesting that the School Committee keep the Meeting Street Primary School open specifically for students of color. The petitioners won out, with the School Committee reporting in 1866 that “in compliance with the request of many colored families, the school of Mrs. Smith is continued in Meeting Street, and is attended by from thirty to forty colored scholars.”[22]

22 East Street

In the years after desegregation, Elizabeth experienced several personal tragedies and financial setbacks. The Smith family home at 22 East Street was sold in the early 1870s following the death of her husband and mother in quick succession. By 1875, Elizabeth moved into the Cushing Street (No. 67, no longer extant) home of Ransom Parker, who had been the schoolmaster of the Meeting Street School when Elizabeth was hired in 1838.[23] Two other notable boarders lived there as well: Edward Bannister, the famous Rhode Island painter, and his wife Christiana Carteaux, a successful hairdresser and businesswoman. A visitor to the home at the time characterized Elizabeth as “a charming entertainer, being at home equally in the French language and in the art of music.”[24]

Records reflect Elizabeth’s employment as principal at the Meeting Street Primary School until 1887. The same year, the New York Freeman newspaper published a report that she had fallen ill with pneumonia[25] and that the Meeting Street School temporarily closed as a result.[26] Given that there is no subsequent mention of the school, is likely that this closure became permanent due to her age and failing health.

Elizabeth had no income or support system after the Meeting Street Primary School closed. The Superintendent of Schools’ yearly address to Providence public schoolteachers in September of 1893 contains insight into the decline in her circumstances, as well as evidence of the high esteem she was held in by other educators in Providence. A summary of the address reveals that, during the previous year, more than $266 had been contributed by teachers for “Mrs. Elizabeth H. Smith, the colored teacher for many years in this city, who a year ago was in destitute circumstances.” Some of this money paid off her debts, while $150 “was paid over to the Treasurer of the Home for Aged Colored Women for her admission into the home.”[27]

The Home for Aged Colored Women at 45 E. Transit Street

Elizabeth spent the last five years of her life in the Home (then located at 45 East Transit Street), which had opened in 1891 after years of planning and fundraising by members of the Black community spearheaded by Christiana Carteaux Bannister.[28] Unfortunately, Elizabeth seemingly experienced symptoms of dementia and was significantly disabled at the end of her life. Her passing in 1898 was noted in the 9th Annual Report of the Home: “In August, Elizabeth Smith died. She had been bedridden for months, and a long while before had lost her mind and been utterly helpless.”[29]

The Providence Journal ran a brief notice of her death, which also included an invitation to her funeral services. Attendees are unknown, but perhaps some of her hundreds of former students came to honor the memory of the woman who had worked so tirelessly to educate generations of young Black children in Providence. Like the other residents of the Home, Elizabeth was buried in a lot set aside for that purpose at the North Burial Ground adjacent to the potter’s field. Elizabeth’s final resting place is marked by a small stone with her initials “E. H. S.” in the same style of all the Home’s deceased residents who did not have family to pay the cost of a more elaborate memorial.

Elizabeth’s grave at the North Burial Ground, marked “E. H. S.”

Elizabeth H. Smith’s grave is now faded and overgrown with lichen and weeds, and her contributions to Providence’s educational legacy have fallen into obscurity. But her positive impact on the city’s Black community is undeniable. She was the first Black woman to teach public school in Providence, dedicating nearly 50 years to the Meeting Street Primary School and its students. From her fight for equal civil rights to her charitable endeavors, she uplifted Rhode Islanders who faced obstacles to education, opportunities, and meaningful work. Elizabeth’s story, and the stories of countless other unsung Providence citizens of color, must be told if we are to truly understand the city’s diverse and vibrant history. 

In addition to assembling the first known biography of Elizabeth Howland Smith, PPS has also named our internship program in her honor as one small way to call attention to her lifetime of educational service and restore some piece of her legacy.


PPS Staffer Kate Blankenship first uncovered Elizabeth Smith’s name in early records for the Meeting Street School and subsequently conducted original research to better understand her contributions. This post is a shorter version of the paper Kate authored to document her research findings. For the full-length article, contact us
To date, we’ve been unable to find any photographs or likenesses of Elizabeth H. Smith, despite her relative prominence and connections to several notable figures in Providence. We can only conjure an image of her from the places she lived and worked and the many lives she touched. 

[1] Letter to the editor, Manufacturers’ and Farmers’ Journal, March 2, 1865

[2] Ledgers of the ship “Providence,” Seaman’s Ledgers 1831-35, Rhode Island Historical Society

[3] 1832 Providence City Directory

[4] “Appendix A: List of Black Students at the Canterbury Female Seminary in Connecticut”, In Pursuit of Knowledge: Black Women and Educational Activism in Antebellum America, Kabria Baumgartner, 2019

[5] 1835 Providence City Census, Ward 2

[6] Records of the Providence School Committee, June 9, 1831 meeting

[7] Records of the Providence School Committee, September 13, 1838 meeting

[8] Records of the Providence School Committee, August 12, 1842 meeting

[9] Donor list, Manufacturers’ and Farmers’ Journal, August 2, 1849

[10] 1850 Federal Census, Ward 3 of Providence, Rhode Island, page 83, enumerated August 10, 1850

[11] “Married,” The Republican Herald, April 1, 1848

[12] Record of Deeds of Providence, Rhode Island, Book 106, Page 185

[13] 1852 Providence City Directory

[14] Record of Deeds of Providence, Rhode Island, Book 143, Page 371

[15] “Editor’s Department – Spelling”, The R.I. Schoolmaster Vol. 5 No. 8, August 1859

[16] “School Examinations”, Providence Journal, July 28, 1860

[17] Records of the Providence School Committee, November 18, 1864

[18] In Pursuit of Knowledge: Black Women and Educational Activism in Antebellum America, Kabria Baumgartner, 2019, 166-170

[19] Report of the Committee on Education, Upon the Petition of James Jefferson and Others, for Equal School Rights, Rhode Island General Assembly, 1866

[20] Memories of Yesterdays, autobiography of Maritcha Remond Lyons (1848-1929), in Williamson Family Papers at the New York Public Library

[21] “Thanksgiving Meeting”, Providence Evening Bulletin, May 16, 1866 (includes resolution signed by John E Church and others at a meeting of the Black citizens of Providence at Gaspee Street Methodist Church)

[22] “The Public Schools”, Providence Evening Bulletin, May 26, 1866

[23] 1875 Rhode Island State Census, Providence Ward 2, page 68

[24] “Vacation Rambles” by T. McCants Stewart, New York Freeman, September 11, 1886

[25] “Rhode Island Affairs”, New York Freeman, January 28, 1887

[26] “A Rhode Island Protest”, New York Freeman, February 5, 1887

[27] “Talking to Teachers”, Providence Evening Bulletin, September 16, 1893

[28] “I Would Have Made Out Very Poorly Had It Not Been for Her: The Life and Work of Christiana Bannister, Hair Doctress and Philanthropist,” Rhode Island History, Vol. 59, no. 4, Jane Lancaster, 2001

[29] 9th Annual Report of the Home for Aged Colored Women, May 1899

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