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John J. Smith, state representative, abolitionist who rescued Black people from slavery

John J. Smith

This Black History Month, the Globe is saluting people who have made a difference in Massachusetts.

As a barber, John J. Smith prided himself on serving any customer, regardless of the man’s race or nationality. But Smith’s belief in justice was not confined inside the walls of his shop.

He rescued Black people who escaped slavery, helped the Union recruit during the Civil War, battled segregation in Boston’s public schools, and became one of the first Black people to serve as a state representative in Massachusetts.

Smith was born in 1820 in Richmond, Va. He arrived in Boston in his 20s, working as a barber, attending school at night, and becoming a member of the Columbus Avenue African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church.


With his wife Georgiana, Smith was active in the city’s abolitionist movement. Smith rescued people who escaped slavery, including Shadrach Minkins, despite a federal law that made it a crime to help free enslaved people, according to the National Park Service.

In the 1850s, Smith helped fight for the right of Black students to be educated alongside white children in the city’s public schools. His daughter Elizabeth N. Smith would later become the first Black educator to teach in an integrated Boston public school.

In 1868, John Smith became among the first Black people to serve in the Massachusetts House of Representatives, and was reelected again in 1869 and 1872. In 1878, he was appointed to the city’s Common Council — a predecessor of the City Council — and helped hire the city’s first Black police officer. Smith died in 1906 at age 86.

In 1893, the Globe interviewed him about a bill that would bar discrimination based on race in public places. The ex-lawmaker reflected on his experience.


“I conducted a hair-dressing establishment on Milk [Street] and always shaved any man who presented himself, irrespective of nationality or color,” he said, “so long as he behaved himself.”

John Hilliard can be reached at john.hilliard@globe.com.