ENTRY

Henry D. Smith (d. by December 2, 1901)

SUMMARY

Henry D. Smith represented Greensville and Sussex Counties in the House of Delegates. Born into slavery, he likely became free as a result of the American Civil War (1861–1865). He won election in 1870 as a justice of the peace for Belfield township in Greensville County. Elected in 1879 to represent Greensville and Sussex Counties for a two-year term in the assembly, he joined the majority in electing Readjuster Party leader William Mahone to the United States Senate. Appointed the lowest-ranking member of the Committees on Agriculture and Mining and on Immigration, Smith presented an unsuccessful bill to prohibit the sale of cotton between certain hours. He voted to take the first step to repeal the poll tax and voted to reduce the interest rate and amount of principal to be paid on the public debt. A carpenter and farmer, Smith received a license from the county in 1872 to sell alcohol at his storehouse. In the 1870s he acquired hundreds of acres of land where he raised corn and later operated a sawmill and a cotton gin. He died by December 2, 1901, when his widow was appointed administrator of his estate.

 

Early Life and Political Career

Smith was born into slavery during the 1830s in Greensville County. The names of his parents are not known, and he was probably enslaved by the Hobbs family. By the time he was about twenty, he was cohabiting with a woman named Martha (or Marsha) Ann, whose surname is unknown and who was also enslaved so they were unable to marry legally. They had at least three sons and one daughter before her death on January 5, 1868. The circumstances of when and how he became free, most likely as a result of the Civil War, are not known.

In October 1867, Smith voted with other African American men for the first time in the election overseen by the United States Army to elect delegates for a convention to write a new Virginia constitution as required by Congress as part of the Reconstruction Acts. He got involved in local politics, winning election in 1870 as a justice of the peace for Belfield township in Greensville County. Smith was reelected at least twice during the decade, although the office was no longer the powerful position it had been before the Civil War.

Smith won election in November 1879 to represent Greensville and Sussex Counties for a two-year term in the House of Delegates. He received 1,367 votes while the two white candidates each received about 500 votes. Smith was probably the Republican candidate, although newspapers variously identified him as a Readjuster, a Funder, and a Republican Debt-payer. In 1879, the Readjuster Party, a biracial coalition that advocated reducing payment on the state’s large prewar public debt in order adequately to fund the public schools and other necessary government services, won control of the General Assembly. Shortly after the session began in December, Smith joined the majority in electing Readjuster Party leader and former Confederate general William Mahone to the United States Senate. Appointed the lowest-ranking member of the Committees on Agriculture and Mining and on Immigration, Smith presented only one bill, that did not pass, to prohibit the sale of cotton between certain hours. On February 27, 1880, he voted to take the first step to repeal the poll tax as a requirement to vote, and on March 1, he joined with the majority in voting for the Riddleberger Bill to reduce the interest rate and amount of principal to be paid on the public debt, but the governor vetoed the bill. During the session, Smith and eight other African American Republican members of the General Assembly signed a letter in support of Secretary of the Treasury John Sherman as the party’s presidential nominee. Dismayed that “our race has been neglected of late years by the Republican leaders of the country,” they hoped that Sherman would justify their continued support for the party. Smith did not run for reelection in 1881 and apparently withdrew from politics.

Later Life       

Identified as a carpenter and farmer in the 1870 U.S. Census, Smith received a license from the county in 1872 to sell alcohol at his storehouse, which may have been located at the Merry Oaks property previously owned by Meredith Hobbs and part of which Smith rented. In February 1875 Smith purchased at public auction three tracts of the farm totaling 640 acres for $1,511.78, and shortly afterwards also acquired a 325-acre tract. He raised corn and sometimes cotton and by 1882 was also operating a sawmill and a cotton gin. Smith ran the sawmill in partnership with a white man for a brief time, but Smith bought him out after the partner refused to turn over his share of the profits. Like many entrepreneurs of the time, he occasionally borrowed money from a local bank to cover expenses and was usually able to repay it. In 1891 Smith sold rights to the timber on his four tracts of land for $2,250 and about the same time placed 200 acres of his land in his wife’s name, probably to secure it from seizure for debt. Five years later, he was described as the wealthiest African American in Greensville County who owned “a valuable farm” of more than 900 acres, produced brandy and whiskey at his distillery, and operated “one of the largest sawmills in that section.”

After Smith’s first wife died, he married Priscilla E. Senborn by the time of the 1870 census. They had three sons before she died on an unknown date prior to December 7, 1880, when he married twenty-year-old Ella C. Wyatt in Greensville County. They had at least nine daughters and two sons. In December 1900 Smith and his wife mortgaged two tracts totaling 675 acres to secure payment of a $1,000 note to the local bank, but the lots were later sold at auction to satisfy the debt. Smith died on an unrecorded date between July 16, 1901, when he signed a description of land he sold to his oldest son, and December 2, 1901, when his widow was appointed administrator of his estate. His place of burial is unknown.

MAP
TIMELINE
Ca. 1830s

Henry D. Smith is born into slavery in Greensville County.

Ca. 1850s

Henry D. Smith is cohabiting with a woman named Martha (or Marsha) Ann. They have at least three sons and one daughter before her death on January 5, 1868.

October 1867

Henry D. Smith votes with other African American men for the first time in the election overseen by the United States Army to elect delegates for a convention to write a new Virginia constitution as required by Congress as part of the Reconstruction Acts.

1870

Henry D. Smith marries Priscilla E. Senborn after his first wife dies. They have three sons.

1870

Henry D. Smith wins election in 1870 as a justice of the peace for Belfield township in Greensville County.

1872

Henry D. Smith receives a license from the county in 1872 to sell alcohol at his storehouse.

February 1875

Henry D. Smith purchases three tracts of the farm totaling 640 acres for $1,511.78, and shortly afterwards also acquired a 325-acre tract.

November 1879

Henry D. Smith wins election to represent Greensville and Sussex Counties for a two-year term in the House of Delegates. He is appointed the lowest-ranking member of the Committees on Agriculture and Mining and on Immigration.

December 1879

Henry D. Smith joins the majority in electing Readjuster Party leader and former Confederate general William Mahone to the United States Senate. Smith presented only one bill, that did not pass, to prohibit the sale of cotton between certain hours.

February 27, 1880

Henry D. Smith votes to take the first step to repeal the poll tax as a requirement to vote.

March 1, 1880

Henry D. Smith joins with the majority in voting for the Riddleberger Bill to reduce the interest rate and amount of principal to be paid on the public debt, but the governor vetoed the bill.

December 7, 1880

Henry D. Smith marries Ella C. Wyatt. They have at least nine daughters and two sons.

1881

Henry D. Smith does not run for reelection and withdraws from politics.

1882

Henry D. Smith operates a sawmill and a cotton gin.

1891

Henry D. Smith sells rights to the timber on his four tracts of land for $2,250 and about the same time places 200 acres of his land in his wife's name, probably to secure it from seizure for debt.

1896

Henry D. Smith is described as the wealthiest African American in Greensville County who owns "a valuable farm" of more than 900 acres, produced brandy and whiskey at his distillery, and operated "one of the largest sawmills in that section."

December 1900

Henry D. Smith and his wife mortgage two tracts totaling 675 acres to secure payment of a $1,000 note to the local bank.

By December 2, 1901

Henry D. Smith dies on an unrecorded date between July 16, 1901, when he signed a description of land he sold to his oldest son, and December 2, 1901, when his widow was appointed administrator of his estate. His place of burial is unknown.

FURTHER READING

Jackson, Luther Porter. Negro Office-Holders in Virginia, 1865–1895. Norfolk, Va: Guide Quality Press, 1945.

CITE THIS ENTRY
APA Citation:
Julienne, Marianne & Dictionary of Virginia Biography. Henry D. Smith (d. by December 2, 1901). (2023, January 25). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/henry-d-smith-d-by-december-2-1901.
MLA Citation:
Julienne, Marianne, and Dictionary of Virginia Biography. "Henry D. Smith (d. by December 2, 1901)" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (25 Jan. 2023). Web. 31 Jan. 2023
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