High Tide

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National Park Service accepts the Stephen Smith House into Network to Freedom

The Stephen Smith House | Photo by Michelle Giorla

Since I first wrote about the Stephen Smith House for Cape May Magazine (Fall 2015), word has spread that the unassuming yellow clapboard house on Lafayette and Franklin Streets was the summer home of one of the foremost leaders of the Underground Railroad. Since then, thousands have taken MAC’s Underground Railroad Trolley Tour, which I researched and wrote, and learned that Smith was one of several leading Philadelphia abolitionists and Underground Railroad (UGRR) activists, including Harriet Tubman, who came to Cape May in the period before the Civil War.

But now, the National Park Service (NPS) has recognized the role that Cape May played in America’s foremost struggle for freedom. The NPS has accepted my application to include the Stephen Smith House in the Park Service’s Network to Freedom. This follows the NPS’s acceptance of the Underground Railroad Trolley Tour into the Network in 2018.

What does this mean?

The aim of the Network to Freedom, set up by Congress in 1998, is to connect places and programs throughout the country that tell the story of the Underground Railroad. To be accepted into the Network, the applicant must pass a stringent vetting process. Currently there are over 600 members, two of those in Cape May.

In accepting the Stephen Smith House, NPS declared that “[the house] makes a significant contribution to the understanding of the Underground Railroad in American history and that it meets the requirements for inclusion as a site. We commend you on your dedication to this important aspect of our history …”

The Stephen Smith House sits across the street from the upcoming Harriet Tubman Museum. Both are at the heart of an area where leading abolitionists of the day met, talked, and issued proclamations condemning slavery. Next to the Smith House was the Banneker House, built by a friend at the same time. Banneker House was the only seaside resort for blacks, and hosted anti-slavery rallies. Smith bought it after the Civil War. The corner also included the abolitionist Cape May Baptist Church whose members demanded the state church leadership denounce slavery. (Freedom’s Corner, Cape May Magazine, May 2019)

Portrait of Stephen Smith by James Stidun
Portrait of Stephen Smith by James Stidun (date unknown)

Born enslaved in Pennsylvania in 1795, Stephen Smith bought his freedom and went on to run a successful coal and lumber firm in Columbia, Pennsylvania. He became one of the richest black men in America.

A letter still exists showing Smith was an active Underground Railroad conductor at least as early as 1840. He was writing to the Quaker who ran the first stop on the UGRR out of Columbia, PA. Smith had sent three people fleeing slavery on to him, then heard about a capture of three freedom seekers. Worried it was the group he had sent along, he wrote, “Three slaves caught below Lancaster this week. I wish you to please to let me know whether they were delivered to your house on last Sunday evening as there is various reports afloat respecting their capture.”

In 1836, white citizens of Columbia rioted against the town’s large black population. They singled out Smith, ransacking his office. With continuing threats against him, by 1842 Smith decided to move to Philadelphia. He kept his business, however, and put his relative and anti-slavery collaborator William Whipper in charge.

The two men stepped up their Underground Railroad efforts after the 1850 passage of the Fugitive Slave Act. That law made it unsafe for people fleeing slavery to remain in the United States, and it led to widespread kidnapping of free blacks. Smith and Whipper soon realized they could safely transport groups of people to safety in their own rail cars. Whipper designed a secret compartment where people could hide next to the coal and lumber he and Smith shipped.

Whipper revealed this years later in a letter to William Still, Philadelphia coordinator of the Underground Railroad. He explained that many people fleeing slavery in Maryland came through Columbia, where there was a major bridge over the Susquehanna.

“My house was at the end of the bridge, and as I kept the station, I was frequently called up in the night to take charge of the passengers,” Whipper wrote. “On their arrival they were generally hungry and penniless. I have received hundreds in this condition; fed and sheltered from one to seventeen at a time in a single night.”

From Columbia, he sent them on to other conductors, either west or east, depending on what was safest at the time. “At this point the road forked; some I sent west by boats, to Pittsburgh, and others to you in our cars to Philadelphia…In a period of three years from 1847 to 1850, I passed hundreds to the land of freedom…”

The Stephen Smith House | Photo by Michelle Giorla

The year he moved to Philadelphia, Smith was again targeted by hostile white mobs. They torched a large meeting hall and school he was building. He needed a refuge, both from this hostility, and the heat and disease in Philadelphia. He built a summer home in Cape May.

We don’t know if he engaged in any Underground Railroad activity here, but Smith spent many summers in Cape May until his death in 1873. Who did he see and talk to from the porch of his summer home?

He was here in 1852 when Harriet Tubman walked these streets, working as a cook to earn money to return to the Eastern Shore to rescue family and friends. She had already connected with William Still’s network and likely knew Smith.

He was also here when Rev. William Furness, the fiery anti-slavery Unitarian Minister of Philadelphia, stayed in Cape May. Furness, a close friend of William Still, undoubtedly knew Smith too. 

And Smith was here in 1856 when Furness brought Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts to Cape May to recuperate from a serious physical assault on the Senate floor by a Southern congressman.

As the National Park Service has recognized, the Smith House is a good place to tell his story. The Hampton family, which owns the Stephen Smith House, plans to restore it and eventually open it as a museum. Meanwhile, the Tubman Museum across the street will have exhibits on the broader role of Cape May in the fight against slavery. It will open June 19, 2020.

For more information about the Stephen Smith House, visit stephensmithhouse.org. And visit harriettubmanmuseum.org for updates on the museum.