One hundred nineteen years ago today, the Wilson Times ran a letter sent from Monrovia, Liberia, by Rev. Owen L.W. Smith, U.S. consul to that West African country. Largely a sycophantic roll call of Wilson’s elected officials, halfway through Smith suddenly jabs. Praising a hospital director, he commented that all had “the appearance that better things are coming, notwithstanding the ‘Jim Crow Car’ law, the election franchise act, and the constitutional amendment. But I believe you will let me vote.” He then drops a few lines describing Liberia’s system of suffrage. It’s not universal, but. Touché.
The State Department was among the first agencies to appoint blacks to positions of prominence and one of the few to continue to do so beyond Reconstruction through World War I. African Americans were part of the diplomatic service on the ministerial level in Liberia and Haiti (where Frederick Douglass served, 1889-1891) and on the consular level in other countries. Four North Carolinians served as minister resident and consul general in Monrovia, Liberia. Owen Lun West Smith was the last in that line.
Owen L. W. Smith was born into slavery in Sampson County in 1851. He followed the Confederate Army as a personal servant but by war’s end had joined Federal forces and was part of Sherman’s army at Bentonville and the Grand Parade in Washington, D.C. He taught school briefly and studied at the University of South Carolina 1874-1876. In 1880 he was converted at a camp meeting and the next year began to preach. Active in the A.M.E. Zion Church, he served or built churches across eastern North Carolina and served as presiding elder, secretary of the Sunday School convention, private secretary to Bishop John Small, conference delegate, and corresponding editor of the Star of Zion.
In 1885 Smith took up a pastorate at St. John’s A.M.E. Zion in Wilson. In 1897, he sought the diplomatic post to Liberia and received endorsements from the state governor, attorney general, congressmen, and others. President William McKinley selected him from a field of forty-three applicants. During his first of four years in Liberia, Smith received an honorary doctorate from Livingstone College. When his posting ended, he returned to Wilson. He died there in 1926 and is buried in the Masonic cemetery.
Adapted from the website of North Carolina Historical Highway Marker Program.
For more information about Reverend Dr. Smith’s life, see E. Renee Ingram, “Rev. Owen Lun West Smith: From Minister to Minister Resident and General Consul,” Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society Journal, volume 20, number 1 (2001).