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  --  1777 (?)--1883   Table of Contents    Illustration

Brown, Hallie Q.
Homespun heroines

- ELIZABETH N. SMITH -- (A nineteenth century example, actual dates uncertain )

(A nineteenth century example, actual dates uncertain )

Though an important division of the American people, in one phase we differ from most, if not all other divisions--we know so little about ourselves. We have neglected to preserve facts and incidents of those of us who have lived lives of strenuous endurance and unwavering self-sacrifice. Such had a lofty aim to sustain them, that of securing the unhampered enjoyment of life, liberty and property; and they could not be satisfied to plod along restricted paths marked out for them by certain self-styled superiors.

So the story still remains to be told in all its details how our forbears inaugurated a propaganda so insistent and forcible as to culminate in a train of events making emancipation both a political and a moral issue.

Regarded in the light of heroism, many Americans, bond and free, have passed on unhonored and unsung who yet were worthy of the olive crown and the victor's palm for their constancy, their courage and their firm belief in the ultimate triumph of justice.

Among this galaxy of heroes may be included a woman who, born in New England, well might a century ago have lived the restrained life of a gentle woman and left an illustrious example of culture, refinement and noble character.

Elizabeth Smith had wise, sagacious parents and enjoyed a material ease that seemed opulence in days of frugal habits and simple customs. This afforded her the opportunity to grow normally. With the advance of years she attained a fine physique, a trained intellect, a moral

discernment acute and sensitive, all of which contributed to make her the exceptional woman she finally became.

Her earliest instruction was given her by private tutors belonging to the Quaker element of her home town, Providence, R. I. Studiously inclined, she was inducted into some branches then popularly deemed "too deep" for ordinary females. She also was at one time a pupil in the "Prudence Crandell" School. This was prior to 1832, for during the year the school building was dragged from its foundations and its brave principal was virtually driven into exile. In the prejudiced eyes of the Canterbury towns-people teaching of Negro and Indian youths was a misdemeanor. One year later the Connecticut legislature covered itself with ignominy by the passage of a law making the opening of a school for pupils of Negro descent a felony.

In Rhode Island, however, such an institution was tolerated. Just prior to the middle of the last century a "colored school" was established which was located within sight of the State House. There Mrs. Smith worked many years, first as a teacher, afterward a principal.

In 1865 the school law was so amended that children regardless of race, or color, were admitted into the schools of their respective districts. The only child of Mrs. Smith, a son, thus gained the right of attending the Boys' High School from which he graduated with honor.

This "opening" of Providence schools just at the close of the Civil War was indeed a notable event. Through the efforts of Albert Lyons and his intrepid wife, Mrs. Mary J. Lyons, a revival of a statute was secured making public school really not merely nominally free. The action was both warmly contested and as strenuously endorsed. The endorsers were most ably assisted by Mrs. Smith, Hon. George T. Downing, of Newport, and many of the influential men in Providence both white and colored. Despite the opposition of "Copperheads," fair play won in the contest. The third daughter in the Lyons family, after

passing a grilling examination, written and oral, (for a certificate of graduation from Colored Grammer School 3, New York City, would not be accepted as qualifying for admission) entered the Girls' High School. This had been in existence only ten years and some of the "hayseeds" were still discussing the "pros and cons" of higher education for females. For females of African descent, such a departure in their undeveloped minds was equivalent to a revolution. And so it virtually proved to be, happily a bloodless one. Many of the graduates of her class became teachers but in a class reunion in 1892, it was stated that among those following the profession, Miss Lyons was the only one who had taken a rank above that of class teacher, and congratulations were gracefully accorded to her.

Many of our future women of mark attended this now venerable institution. Of these Amanda (Mattie) Bowen should be referred to for her successful work in Washington, D. C., as a teacher and her welfare work there where she literally spent and was spent in her voluntary sacrifices for her people.

Miss Lyons, writer of this sketch, has always kept in touch with some of her former classmates, with one, a member of the Tappen family, well-known in abolition days, she has maintained permanent close relations. Until the end of her fruitful busy life the renowned educator, Miss Sarah E. Doyle, remembered "her girls" in ways kindly and practical, and Miss Lyons as one of them had the high honor of assisting in the celebration of this noble woman's ninetieth birthday. The school taught by Mrs. Smith was never "opened" neither was it "closed" until she voluntarily ceased her connection with public education. She turned her attention to private tuition and soon found herself fully occupied in giving piano lessons and instruction in French. Her pupils being mainly children of her neighbors, as she resided on the aristocratic "East Side," were of the better class and she enjoyed her work with them.


Mrs. Smith was a pianist of high rank and a fine linguist. The writer is most happy to record her personal indebtedness to this woman who 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.

In conversation Mrs. Smith was supreme. She lived when conversation was an art; her disciplined mind and varied reading, her choice of apposite quotations and illustrations, her animated graceful manners, charmed as well as her kind heart led her to intuitively adapt herself to her auditors. She had the faculty of drawing out the best in each and the good sense to avoid monologues. The secret of her popularity was that she was equally a good talker and a good listener.

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 recalling with satisfaction how she had helped him who became the "Grand Old Man" of our people, how she had fought and endured with the "real patriots who essayed such heroic service in stirring northerners' consciences just 'before the crisis'."

Her purity of intention, her faith, her fidelity mark her existence as noble for its endeavor and its fruition. Wonderful records are enshrined in the life stores of so many of our women of the past. We can but dimly realize what it was to do one's duty under the shade of a slavery-darkened country. All honor to our women who were faithful to ideals despite doubt, discouragement, disappointment, despair. The nimbus of serfdom weighted like a nightmare. With the conflict between the spirit of legality and the letter of the law they lay, as it were, between upper and nether millstones. Their joy was so commingled with sorrow, their place so harrowed by injusticed, their sense of justice so maltreated, that they were able to cultivate

patience and keep the faith undimmed is an eloquent tribute to the nobleness of their humanity.

From the South have come many women who literally fought the stars in their curse, to step out of the darkness of bondage into the light of personal liberty. Throughout the North and other sections our thoughtful women have lived clouded lives, made dim by the tales of the indescribable sufferings endured by their sisters by blood and lineage. Their tears have flowed in sympathy and their characters have been moulded by large sacrifices cheerfully made upon demand to aleviate distress which at best could only be surmised. An impregnable persistency, a luminous faith, combined to make both the bond and the free able to endure to the uttermost.

And they all have done their duty, much better than they knew. They have left a broad foundation upon which their successors are obligated to raise an enduring superstructure of character, one that will exhibit the progress of the much maligned "black woman of America," and so conserve the toils, vigils and prayers of the many whose lives have been lived in shade, who only in lives of others saw "the shine of distant suns."

  --  1777 (?)--1883   Table of Contents    Illustration