Smith Surname In Black History

There were 564,572 black Americans with Smith as their last name in the 2010 U.S. Census. This was 23% of the total number with that name in the country.

This article looks at:

  • 19th and early 20th century black census numbers for the name
  • notable African American people named Smith
  • early black military records and how to find them

Smith Before The Civil War

The 1850 census was the first to record all free members of households together. Before this, people who were not white were not named in the federal census.

In 1850, there was a box to enter color on the census. It was left blank to denote white, b for black, or m for mulatto. The third term is the language of the time. I will use mixed in the rest of this article.

If you are researching your black Smith ancestors in census archives, be sure to search under both categories. Do not rely on the census taker getting the category right.

1850 Federal Census

There were 5,502 people named Smith who were recorded as black in the 1850 census. 2,113 were recorded as mixed.

Because they are in the main federal census, these are free citizens.

There was a total of 279,475 free citizens named Smith that year.

1860 Federal Census

The 1860 federal census recorded 5,233 people named Smith as black, and 2,715 as mixed.

That is out of a total of 354,021 free citizens.

Of course, census-taking would change after the Civil War.

After The Civil War

1865 newly freed family in Richmond, Virginia

The 1870 census was the first after the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation. At last, all African Americans are included.

Those who were omitted in 1860 because they were enslaved are now in this census. Here are the numbers.

69,759 people named Smith were recorded in the 1870 census as black and 10,762 as mixed.

The increase is clear. The overall total (all Americans) was 69,759.

The 1880 census recorded 95,239 as black and 17,116 as mixed out of a total of 631,064.

Now we jump to the end of the 19th century – or the beginning of the 20th.

Smith In The 1900 And 1940 Census

In 1900, the mixed category was dropped. However, not all enumerators followed those instructions. I have found a small number of records where “m” was still used in the box for color.

I will focus here on the black numbers.

The 1900 census recorded 154,516 people named Smith as black within a total of 879,320.

There were 221,380 people named Smith recorded in the 1940 census as black within a total of 1,371,689.

Historic Black Figures

Here are some notable African Americans in history who bore the last name of Smith.

Lena Smith

  • Born: 1885
  • Died: 1966
  • From: Lawrence, Smith

Lena Olive Smith graduated in law in 1921 from Northwestern College in Minneapolis. She took on a series of civil rights cases in the city and became president of the local NAACP chapter.

She famously replaced the white attorney in the Arthur A. Lee case of 1931 when she helped a black family secure their rights to live in a hostile white neighborhood.

Moses Smith

  • Born: 1848
  • Died: 1886
  • From: Knoxville Tennessee

Moses Smith was well-known in Knoxville in the late 1860s for marching his African American artillery regiment through the town in their best uniforms.

When he left the army, he bought a house and became a city alderman.

Smith served as the first black police officer in the city before becoming a federal marshal.

His son, Jim Smith, was hired by the same police station in 1910. His responsibilities included driving the police wagon, which was drawn by horse in that era.

This was a continuation of his prior employment. Jim had previously worked for a livery company that provided horse-drawn vehicles for weddings and funerals.

Jeremiah and Julia Smith

Jeremiah and Julia were a married couple with separate owners in Richmond, Virginia. Fearing that they might be sold to far-flung places, they resolved to escape in 1854.

With the help of the Underground Railroad, they were smuggled by steamboat to arrive in Philadelphia. Before they headed for certain freedom in Canada, they gave their account to the local group of conductors who gave them shelter.

You can read the full story in our except on Jeremiah and Julia Smith and the Underground Railroad.

Smith In Black Military Records

You may be surprised at the amount of genealogy information available from military records.

Here are some examples of the Smith surname from three different military services:

  • Buffalo soldiers
  • Black civil war soldiers
  • Tuskegee airmen

Buffalo Soldiers

Five regiments for black soldiers were formed during the Civil War. They were known as the Buffalo Soldiers.

Their records are part of the national archive of military monthly returns. The information includes the year and place of birth, where they enlisted, their occupation, and their height.

One of the earliest entries for Smith was in 1867. Alexander Smith was a Private in the Tenth Cavalry. He was stationed in 1867 at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.

One of the last entries was in 1916. Matthew Smith was a Sergeant in the Tenth Cavalry that year.

If you want to do your own research, there is a free index of these military records on Ancestry.com and FamilySearch.org.

Black Civil War Sailors

The National Parks Service has a free archive of African American sailors during the Civil War.

The information includes their age, height, rank, occupation, and where and when they enlisted. It also includes every ship that they served on.

You can search the database on the National Parks website.

Aaron Smith

One of the earliest entries for the surname concerned Aaron Smith from Westmoreland, Virginia. He enlisted in 1861 aged 26.

His occupation before enlisting was as a Farmer. His naval rank was 1st Class Boy.

“1st Class Boy” was the rank given to young men under eighteen.

Elijah Smith

One of the later entries was for a sailor who enlisted in 1864. Elijah was aged 36 and was from Baltimore, Maryland.

His occupation before enlisting was as a Laborer. His naval rank was Landsman.

“Landsman” was the lowest rank at the time and was given to recruits with little sea experience.

Tuskegee Airmen

The Tuskegee Airmen were military personnel who served at the Tuskegee Army Airfield or related programs.

Nearly one thousand black pilots graduated from the Tuskegee Institute. They flew single-engine fighter planes or twin-engine bombers. 352 fought in combat.

Quentin Smith came from East Chicago, Illinois. He trained as a bomber pilot and graduated as a 2nd Lieutenant in 1945.

Luther Smith graduated as a 2nd Lieutenant from the Tuskegee Institute in 1943. He qualified as a fighter pilot. Luther was from Des Moines, Iowa.

His combat credits said: 

Downed 1 Me-109 on July 17, 1944;

Downed 1 He-111 on October 12, 1944

This means that he shot down two enemy planes in combat.