Lucy Wilmot Smith

There are a few uncertainties and much that is unknown about the life and legacy of Lucy or Lucie Wilmot Smith. Was she born a slave on November 16, 1861, in Lexington, Kentucky? Who was her father? 

Unquestionable, however, is that her mother was Margaret Smith, and Smithwas a teenager when she began working as a teacher to support herself and her mother. Little information is available about her early education until she received a degree from the state university at Louisville. It has been speculated that she was taught and trained by her mother.

In 1877, after some years of teaching, Smithbecame the private secretary of William J. Simmons, a position she would hold until 1884. Simmons was an educator and ex-slave who became president of Simmons College. At his suggestion, she began writing a children’s column for the American Baptist, a prominent publication at that time. She succeeded with such acclaim that by 1888, she was named was director of communication at Our Women and Children, based in Louisville. 

Smithwas an unwavering advocate for women’s rights, a passion that is captured in this quote from one of her articles: “It is said by many that women do not want the ballot. We are not sure that the 15,000,000 women of voting age would say this, and if they did[,] majorities do not always establish the right of a thing. Our position is that women should have the ballot, not as a matter of expediency, but as a matter of pure justice.”

What she wrote was often given greater resonance from the podium, as this sample indicates in her speech “The Future Colored Girl,” where she notes some of the desires of Black girls beyond housework and maids: “Give the girl the same freedom in exercising as the boy, the same liberty of wearing loose clothes, the same mental food[,] and she will accomplish the same work.”

On another occasion, Smithsaid, “I think all surgical operations on women should be performed only by women,” intimating that women were best suited to care for other women. She also encouraged women to pursue journalism, saying, “We need papers and magazines edited by women for women.” 

Smithwas the editor of the publication’s “Women and Women’s Work” column, which may have been the beginning of her work in the suffragette movement. Her renown increased with each publication where she was listed as a contributor or editor, including the Baptist Journal out of St. Louis and under the stewardship of Rev. R.H. Coles; the New York-based The Journalist; and the more prestigious Indianapolis Freeman, the nation’s first, and at that time, only illustrated paper specifically created for Black Americans. Her articles also appeared in the Boston Advocate (now known as the Jewish Advocate). She also taught at Louisville University for a period of years and was among the few women to hold a leadership position in the American National Baptist Convention.

In 1884, according to magazine accounts, Smith filled a teaching position in Wyandotte County, Kansas. She also became president of the Sewing Circle of the Wyandotte Baptist Church and of a society connected with the Methodist Church, as well as secretary of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. Upon the urgent request of the president and trustees, she returned to her old position at the state university in September 1885, where she served as financial clerk and city missionary for the YMCA/YWCA; she also served this body as president.

Working tirelessly in several organizations and institutions, by the fall of 1888, a persistent cough curtailed Smith’s activities. She rejected all the advice from friends and associates who insisted she take a break and rest. Several doctors began to attend to her but were unable to find the source of her illness. She gradually began to accept that she was incurable and requested that Simmons preach at her funeral. Her condition was diagnosed as terminal and she finally consented to her mother’s suggestion that she spend her final days in Lexington. 

During her productive life, Smith held a number of significant memberships in organizations and journals, most notably the Afro-American Press Convention. 

Consistent with many facts about her life, there is no agreement about the year of her death, which has been cited as 1889 or 1891, nor is there any further indication of what she did in those later years. Not much was probably available anyway, since she was still a very young woman—probably only in her late 20s—when she died.

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