In support of Black History Month October 2021, we are sharing the account of a man named Lewis Smith who came to England from America in the 1860’s. This is the real story of how the abomination of slavery tore families apart but also how ‘….the energy, self-denial, and perseverance….’[i] of two men and their enduring friendship re-united a family.
Portrait of a family
Within the pages of the January edition of The Band of Hope Review 1861[ii] (a temperance periodical held in our archive), is an illustration of a family. Lewis Smith and his wife look out from the page with their three young children, yet four of their children are missing from their family portrait. The narrative under the family portrait tells us the reason why – ‘Lewis Smith, (now in England) his wife and three children, who have been redeemed from slavery. Four children are still left in slavery.’
‘Who will help?’, is the accompanying article which tells us how Lewis Smith ‘….after years of unwearied toil, has succeeded in redeeming not only himself, but his wife and three of his children from slavery. He still has four children who are slaves. The planter who owns these four children is what is called ‘a liberal-minded’ slave-holder and has agreed to liberate Smith’s children, provided he can raise the purchase money, $4800 dollars (about £1000) by May next.’
Lewis came to England from America with another former slave named Tabb Gross (a Minister of the African Episcopal Church), in order to ask ‘the friends of freedom in England’ to help him raise this money to re-unite his family.
It was two years after Lewis’s visit to England, that American President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed emancipation of slaves with effect from January 1, 1863 and the 13th Amendment of U.S. Constitution followed in 1865 banning slavery. Britain had passed the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act in 1807, outlawing the British Atlantic slave trade. The condition of slavery remained legal until 1834, when Britain passed the Abolition of Slavery Act, ordering gradual abolition of slavery in all British colonies.
Appeal for funds
According to The Band of Hope Review, churches were supporting Lewis’s bid to help raise funds towards what would be the equivalent of over £120,000 today, in order to liberate his family. London Sunday School scholars and teachers contributed to the fund and the Earl of Shaftesbury, the prominent politician, social reformer and philanthropist, headed the subscription list.
Lewis was under ‘bond’ to return to America by May, so the time to secure this amount of money was severely limited. An appeal was made for contributions to the fund to be made as quickly as possible, so that Lewis would be ‘spared the agony of seeing his four children doomed to perpetual slavery’.
In the May edition of The Band of Hope Review, Lewis and Tabb were on their way back to Kentucky and contributions to the appeal meant that £1000 had been sent on to New York and a surplus of nearly £1000 was in the hands of a treasurer. A proposition was made to ‘apply a portion of this surplus in securing the liberation of Tabb Gross’s sister….’ and the remainder would be ‘….for the benefit of the families of Lewis Smith and Tabb Gross….’ and to enable Lewis to establish himself in an occupation.
News that Lewis’s wife and children had finally been emancipated from slavery was published in August 1861. The Bill of Sale was made in the County of Bracken in Kentucky, for the sum of $4500 on 4th May 1861 and gives us the names and ages of Lewis’s wife and children –
Keziah Smith aged about 36 years
Winfield Scott Smith aged 17
American Smith aged 15
Dinah Smith aged 11
Alfred Smith aged 9
James Smith aged 7
Elijah Smith aged 3 in June
(For unknown reasons the name of the seventh child wasn’t listed, although the Bill states that seven children were emancipated)
Unfortunately, the liberation of Tabb’s sister had not yet been accomplished.
After reading these articles about Lewis and his bid for the liberation of his family, it raised more questions about his story – What of their former lives as slaves? Why had only three of his children been ‘redeemed’ from slavery before he arrived here? What was the ‘bond’ under which Lewis came to England? What circumstances enabled him to travel from America to England and who was his companion, Tabb Gross?
1861 Interview in London
An interview recorded when the two men were in London, England in 1861 provides a glimpse into the lives of these two men and the incredible effort, hard work and determination it took in order to gain their freedom from slavery.
The account tells us that Lewis was 36 years old in 1861 when he came to England, having been born on a slave plantation in 1825 in Mason County, Kentucky. He was aged about 12 years old, when his slave master died and the master’s estate was divided and he became the property of one of the sons. At around 19 years old he married the woman we now know was named Keziah; she was from an adjoining plantation and they had seven children. Lewis was the property of one master while his wife and children were the property of another. It is recorded that Lewis’s wife had been purchased by her master’s wife when she was just 6 years old.
When Lewis was about 30 years old his master mortgaged part of his property and slaves, with Smith being mortgaged separately for $1000. When the mortgagee decided to enforce this agreement and Lewis’s master did not have the ability to pay, Lewis was put in jail for two freezing January days and night. Keziah decided to go to her own master and implore him to buy her husband which he agreed to. After 18 months Lewis was offered his freedom if he could raise the $1000 to buy it. Lewis was allowed to work overtime by his master, working nights and managed to save $300 towards his liberty. ‘Some kind friends’ became security for the remaining $700 and Lewis was then allowed the freedom to work on his own account to raise the remainder.
It was at this point that Lewis went to Tabb Gross for help. Tabb had already bought his own freedom from slavery and that of his family. In order to earn the money to liberate his wife and children, Tabb had walked over 2500 miles on foot, to dig for gold in California. Enduring many hardships, he worked there for over two years and ‘by great perseverance and self-denial obtained the $1600 for the redemption of his wife and four children.’ Lewis had met Tabb when they were owned by masters on adjoining plantations and they had made a pact that whoever gained their freedom first, would help the other one to obtain theirs.
Tabb had been permitted to be a member of his masters church and had become a preacher. When Lewis came to him for help to raise the remaining money required for his freedom, Tabb took him to the places where he preached in different states, so that Lewis could share his story. ‘The hearts of people were opened, and the $700 were collected, and Smith returned with the money within the limited time and purchased his freedom’.
$6000 for his family freedom
Lewis determined to free his family as well, then went to his late master who agreed to accept $6000 for the freedom of his wife and children, on the condition that this money was paid by 4th May 1861. If the money was not paid by this date ‘the bargain should be void – the wife and children must then be sold by auction and separated from each other, perhaps forever.’
Tabb made further appeals for Lewis through his preaching, collecting $1200, but with a limited timescale to raise the remaining money they came to England to ‘appeal to the sympathy of the friends of freedom.’ Before leaving for England the money already raised was handed to a banker who acted on behalf of Lewis. This man went to the master of Smiths wife and children, and this was accepted as an instalment towards the full amount being found which allowed Lewis’s wife and three youngest children to go free when security was found for their value. This was the reason that the four eldest children remained in slavery when Lewis and Tabb arrived in England.
The men were received in England by the presbytery of the Scotch Church and contributions for the appeal were collected by the Weslyan Mission House, Bishopgate Street, London.
One newspaper report of the time recorded that Lewis and Tabb attended a Surrey Chapel where anti-slavery readings were made and as former slaves, they addressed the meeting about slavery and its effects. The report also tells us that in order to make the $300 towards his original $1000 price of freedom, Lewis had worked in mines blasting rocks, sometimes all night long. They attended further meetings during their time in England talking about their experiences of slavery.
It appears that Tabbs and Lewis travelled back to America in early April 1861, just before the American Civil War began. The Sheilds Daily Gazette of 4th April 1861 recorded that they had returned to America by steam ship from Liverpool just a few days earlier.
An extract from a letter written by Tabb on their return to America was published in another paper. He wrote confirming Lewis’s wife and children’s liberation to Ripley, Ohio, but with the terrible news that one of his children had died just one week before they arrived home.
Energy, self-denial and perseverance
Lewis and Tabb did reach their goal of buying their freedom and that of their families from slavery, but it was a long and arduous task, taking tremendous effort, hard work and determination.
Following the American Civil War
Following the liberation of his family and the American Civil War, newspaper reports from 1869 show that Lewis came to England again, delivering addresses – ‘….a Sketch of his Life and the Present Condition of the Freedmen of America.’ The object of his visit was to raise money to rebuild the chapel and school in Ripley, Ohio that had been destroyed during the war.
In 1869 Tabb Gross became the first African American to publish and own a newspaper in Arkansas and became a lawyer when he was admitted to practice law in 1869 by the Arkansas Supreme Court.[iii]
‘….who can read this account without….acknowledging the energy, self-denial, and perseverance of these men – their abiding friendship – the love and faithfulness both of the wife and of the husband?’ – from the 1861 London interview.
[i] 1861 London Interview: Slave Testimony: Two Centuries of Letters, Speeches, Interviews, and Autobiographies by John W. Blassingame
[ii] The Band of Hope Review, Part 1 New Series, S W Partridge, No 9 Paternoster Row – White Ribbon Association Archives