The Story of Scipio Smith

Scipio Smith, first black business owner in the City of Lancaster, Ohio.As a slave born in Virginia during the 18th and 19th centuries, your chance of having a happy, fulfilling life were quite dim. The state had one of the largest slave populations in the country and about half of all slave infants died during their first year of life. The majority of slaves worked until death and families were often broken apart and sold to different plantations across the south never to see each other again. So, how did a young slave born in Virginia in 1796 manage to become a businessman, husband, and preacher in the free state of Ohio? The story of Scipio Smith is one of perseverance, hard work, determination, and luck.

Although Scipio Smith was born a slave, he was lucky enough to be owned by someone who was willing to set him free…eventually. Benjamin Smith lived in Rockingham County, Virginia and was the owner of Scipio. He seemed to be very conflicted with the idea of slavery. His parents and his in-laws were both slave owners and they were active in the slave trade.

Benjamin, on the other hand, was not active in the trade. In fact, I have never found a document showing that he ever purchased or sold a slave. All of his slaves were given or bequeathed to him and I have found several documents stating that he was opposed to slavery. In 1804, Benjamin takes the first step to ending his families involvement in slavery by emancipating his slaves.

At this time in Virginia, slave owners could “free” their slaves in one of two ways: manumission or emancipation. Manumission gave slaves their full and complete freedom immediately. Emancipation gave slaves their freedom after a period of time or term of service (generally, when females reached the age of 18 and males reached the age of 25).

So, why would someone that did not agree with slavery emancipate their slaves and not release them by manumission? Well, we can only speculate. It could be that Benjamin Smith was willing to end slavery for his family but only after he reaped some more of the benefits. However, it could have had something to do with his next move: the move to Ohio.

As a free state, it was illegal to bring slaves to Ohio. So, the state became a beacon for freed slaves looking to make a life of their own. However, not everyone was happy about it. Whites in Ohio became concerned that blacks would take all of the jobs and they would lose resources and power. To combat this, lawmakers in the state passed what were known as the “black laws.”

These laws required, among other things, that each black citizen entering the state pay a $500 bond. That is a staggering amount of money that would have been near impossible for a freed slave to afford. However, what if a black citizen entered Ohio in a state of limbo…not a slave, but not free either. This is exactly how Scipio arrived.

Six years after his emancipation, Scipio entered Ohio at age 14 with his owner, Benjamin Smith. There is no record that Benjamin ever paid a bond for Scipio or the other slaves he brought with him. Therefore, the “workaround” was successful. He was able to bring his slaves to a free state without having to pay. Whether he did this for his own benefit, or to get his slaves to a free state for their benefit, or a combination of both is unknown.

What we do know is that soon after arriving in Lancaster, Ohio, Scipio begins working with Samuel Effinger to learn the trade of tinsmith. Effinger, who arrived in Lancaster about two years after Scipio, opened up a copper and tinsmith business on Main Street in downtown Lancaster. At some point, he teaches Scipio the trade. This led Scipio to do something that no other black citizen in Lancaster had done: engage in business for himself.

On May 29, 1821, Scipio Smith’s terms of service was complete and he was fully emancipated. Now, as a free man in a free state, his path was his own.

Just six years after receiving his freedom, Scipio opens his own tinsmith business. It was located near the area where the Ohio Glass Museum stands today. With this business, Scipio became the first black citizen to engage in business in the city. It was an incredible achievement but he wouldn’t stop there.

The Allen Chapel in Lancaster, Ohio, formerly the A.M.E. Church founded by emancipated slave Scipio Smith in the 1820s.

The Allen Chapel in Lancaster, Ohio, formerly the A.M.E. Church founded by emancipated slave Scipio Smith in the 1820s.

At this time in Lancaster, blacks were not allowed to attend white churches or schools. To rectify this, Scipio founded the A.M.E. Church (now Allen Chapel) in Lancaster on a section of land located between High Street and Pearl Avenue. This land was given to him for the purpose of worship and education by Emmanuel Carpenter. Scipio served as the first preacher and the church had a classroom in order to educate the black children of Lancaster.

Historical sign at the Allen Chapel Church in Lancaster, Ohio, describing the history of the church and its founder, Scipio Smith, former Virginia slave.

Historical sign at the Allen Chapel Church in Lancaster, Ohio, describing the history of the church and its founder, Scipio Smith, former Virginia slave.

By 1827, Scipio was operating his own business and church. In 1833, he became a husband when he married Sarah Johnson. It is unknown if the two had any children. In the 1850 census, there is a six year old child living with them named Elizabeth. However, we cannot definitively say it is their child because Scipio was known to take in people who had nowhere to go.

Another mystery is his death. We know that Scipio died between 1850 and 1860 but we don’t know the exact date or cause of death. It is believed that he is buried in the “free” section of Elmwood Cemetery.

Scipio Smith was a Lancaster pioneer with a remarkable story. He was almost “larger than life.” Standing at 6’4” and with a wooden leg (it is written that he lost his leg in an accident as a child), it would have been quite a sight to see him walking the streets of Lancaster. He was known for his kindness to all children and a booming voice that could be heard for blocks when he would sing during church.

From slavery to freedom, Scipio embodied the American spirit of hard work, determination, and perseverance.

The City of Lancaster will honor this man on Monday, May 29, 2023 by declaring it “Scipio Smith Day.” There will be a celebration that everyone is invited to attend. It will include a reading of the “Scipio Smith Day” proclamation, a showing of the new “Scipio Smith Street” signs to be installed on Walnut Street, speakers, and music.

Please consider joining us on Monday, May 29, 2023 at 11:00 am at the Allen Chapel, 221 E. Walnut Street in Lancaster to honor this important figure from our history!

Publisher’s Note: Since the publication of this article, the Fairfield County Heritage Association has succeeded in creating a fund to create a statue honoring Scipio Smith, the first black business owner and founder of the A.M.E. Church on Walnut Street in Lancaster, Ohio. The statue is proposed to be located next to the Ohio Glass Museum on Main Street, site of the tinsmith shop Scipio Smith owned. If you are able, please consider donating to the fund. All donations are tax deductible.

DONATE NOW

You can also donate by contacting the Fairfield County Foundation at (740) 654-8451
or the Fairfield County Heritage Association at 740-654-9923

 

Filed under: Featured, Histories & Mysteries, Homepage Showcase, Life, News, People
Michael R. Johnson, marketing director for the Fairfield County Heritage Association based in Lancaster, Ohio.

By Michael Johnson

Lancaster native Michael Johnson is the Marketing Director for the Fairfield County Heritage Association and serves as editor of the Heritage Quarterly – a magazine highlighting local history. Michael is a member of the Sherman Rotary and the Lancaster Fairfield Chamber of Commerce’s Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging Committee. His bachelor’s degree in history education was earned at Ohio University. Michael is married to Tara Johnson and has two children, Isaac and Mia.