Owen L.W. Smith

Smith transmits intelligence.

Screen Shot 2019-07-20 at 6.37.22 PM.png

Guthrie (Ok.) Daily Leader, 21 July 1899.

Among his duties as counsel to Liberia, Rev. Owen L.W. Smith was responsible for keeping the United States Secretary of State’s office informed about the well-being of American emigrants to Liberia. In 1899, an Oklahoma newspaper printed this transcription of Smith’s missive concerning the illness and deaths among the families of Anderson White, Joseph Brown, William House and Mann Hart, who had left Kingfisher County, Oklahoma, as members of the “Hawes emigration.”

God bless Wilson and her worthy people.

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.


Wilson Times, 9 June 1899.

Cemetery lot.

In 1898, Rev. Owen L.W. Smith purchased from the Town of Wilson, in the person of Mayor John F. Bruton, lot 7, F Street, Section North of Oakdale Cemetery (col’d). Oakdale was the mysterious cemetery of Cemetery Street, south of the business district.

This document raises so many questions:

  • Oakdale was a city-owned property. When was it developed? Where are records?
  • Where is “the official plat of said cemetery”?
  • O.L.W. Smith’s family, including members who died shortly after this plot was purchased, are now buried in the Masonic cemetery. Were they, and the countless other burials at Oakdale, exhumed?
  • Why and when did the cemetery close?

Deed Book 46, page 348, Register of Deeds Office, Wilson.

[UPDATE, 18 May 2018 — See here for answers.]

A wreck on the first day at sea.


The Colonies and India (London, England), 9 April 1898.

Rev. Owen L.W. Smith, his wife Adora Oden Smith, and their daughter Flossie took passage on the African Steamship Company steamer Dahomey, which sailed from Liverpool to his assignment as ambassador in Monrovia, Liberia, on 6 April 1898. Hours after leaving port, the ship struck rocks near Holyhead, Anglesey, Wales. Passengers and crew were safely evacuated, but the ship remained stranded for 14 days before it could be floated off and returned to Liverpool. The incident was investigated, and a magistrate held: “The Court having carefully inquired into the circumstances attending the above-mentioned shipping casualty, finds, for the reasons stated in the Annex hereto, that the stranding of and material damage to the said vessel were due to the improper navigation of the master, Mr. James G. Cawthorne, whose certificate, No. 34,575, the Court suspends for a period of six months from the date hereof.”

A month will pass before the news reaches him.


Colored American (Washington, D.C.), 2 February 1901.

On 29 November 1892, Owen L.W. Smith, 41, of Wilson County, married Adora E. Oden, 22, of Carteret County in Carteret County. It was Smith’s second marriage.

In the 1900 census of Wilson, Wilson County: Owens Smith, 49, minister; wife Adora, 30; son Jesse, 19; daughter Flossie, 4; widowed mother Maria Hicks, 78, a midwife; and boarder Carry Pettiford, a widowed teacher.

Flossie Smith is the child who died of burns. She is referred to as an “only child” in the article above, though Owen and Adora Smith adopted two children, Jesse A. Smith and Carrie Emma, who died as a teenager.


The grave markers of Owen Smith’s daughter Carrie and mother Maria Hicks in the Masonic cemetery, Wilson.


Flossie Smith’s mother, Adora Estelle Oden Smith (1870-1906).

Photo of gravemarkers taken by Lisa Y. Henderson in November 2015; photo of Adora Oden Smith courtesy of Wilson County Public Library.

To cost not less than $100.


I, O.L.W. Smith, of the State and County aforesaid, being of sound mind and memory, but considering the uncertainty of this my earthly existence, do make, publish and declare this my last Will and testament in manner and form following, to-wit:

FIRST: I direct that my Executor, hereinafter named, give my body a decent burial, suitable to the wishes of my friends and relatives, the interment to take place in my lot in the colored Masonic cemetery at Wilson, North Carolina. I direct that he place over my grave a tombstone to cost not less than ONE HUNDRED DOLLARS ($100.00) and not more than TWO HUNDRED DOLLARS ($200.00). I further direct that my said Executor from the first monies coming into his hands from my estate, pay my burial expenses and all of my just debts.

SECOND: My adopted son, Jesse Alexander Smith owes me about TREE HUNDRED AND FIFTY DOLLARS ($350.00), money that he has borrowed from me from time to time. I will that he shall be discharged of this obligation to my estate and shall receive nothing further from my estate than said discharge.

THIRD: I give, bequeath and devise to my step-daughter, Mary E. King, the wife of Clarence L. King of Goldsboro, N.C., all my personal property of every kind and condition and wheresoever situate, except hereinafter excepted. Also, I give and devise to her all my real estate of whatsoever kind and condition and wheresoever situate, subject only to the devise in the succeeding paragraph of this will.

FOURTH: I give and devise to Joannah Hall, who has been a faithful housekeeper, cook and wash woman to me and nurse during times of sickness, my house and lot on Pender Street in the Town of Wilson, Known as No. 122 Pender Street and my house and lot on Ashe Street, known as No. 137.

FIFTH: I hereby nominate, constitute and appoint Clarence King of Goldsboro, N.C. my Executor, to all intents and purposes to execute this my last will and testament and every part and clause thereof, hereby revoking and declaring utterly void all other wills and testaments by me heretofore made.

IN TESTIMONY WHEREOF, I, the said O.L.W. Smith, do hereby set my hand and affix my seal this the 6th day of November, 1924.    O.L.W. Smith

Signed, sealed, published and declared by the said O.L.W. Smith to be his last will and testament, in the presence of us, who at his request, and in his presence, and in the presence of each other, have subscribed our names as witnesses thereto.      Lula Whitehurst, F.D. Swindell : Witnesses.


Screen Shot 2016-08-19 at 9.03.52 PM

Rev. Owen L.W. Smith

On 31 March 1908, in Grifton, Pitt County, Owen L.W. Smith, 56, married Cynthia A. Isler, 43, daughter of Madison and Phyllis King. [She was his third wife.]

In the 1910 census of Wilson, Wilson County: minister Owen W. Smith, 58, wife Lucy A., 45, son Jessy A. Smith, 27, daughter Carry E. Smith, 10, and step-children John H., 12, and Mary A. Isler, 10.

On 2 June 1911, Jesse A. Smith, 30, married Hattie M. Bailiff, 26, in Crossett, Ashley County, Arkansas. Six years later, Jesse Alexander Smith, born 12 February 1881, registered for the World War I draft. He reported that he lived at 246 Second Street, Crossett, Arkansas; worked as a teacher; and his nearest relative was Owen L.W. Smith of 129 N. Pender Street, Wilson, North Carolina.

In the 1920 census of Wilson, Wilson County: at 129 Pender Street, Owen L. Smith, 68, wife Cynthia, 55, stepchild Mary E. Isler, roomer John H. Isler, and eight other roomers. The 1920 census of Wilson also reveals that Frederick D. Swindell was a white lawyer who lived on Nash Street, and Lula Whitehurst was a 25 year-old white stenographer who lived with her parents on Kenan Street.

On 4 June 1922, Clarence L. King, 24, son of James and Sarah King, married Mary E. Isler, 22, foster daughter of O.L.W. and Anna A. Smith, in Wilson at the A.M.E. Zion Church. Rev. B.P. Coward officiated, and J.D. Reid, C.S. Thomas, and W.T. Darden served as witnesses.

Joanna Hall appears in the 1925 city directory of Wilson as a laundress living at 200 Pender Street.

Owen Lum West Smith died in Wilson on 5 January 1926, a little over a year after he wrote out his will.


This bit of page 31 of the 1922 Sanborn Insurance map of Wilson shows (A) O.L.W. Smith’s house at 200 North Pender Street (formerly 129); (B) the approximate location of his property at 137 Ashe Street (the numbering is confusing); and (C) the location of Saint John’s A.M.E. Zion Church.


In the inventory prepared in 1986 for the application for historic district designation for East Wilson, 200 North Pender Street, built circa 1908, was described as “Owen L. Smith House; Queen Anne house with hip-roofed main block and gable-front wing with a lunette in the gable; deep wraparound porch; house has been brick veneered; Smith was a pastor and missionary [sic] to Africa in the early 20th century.”

Unfortunately, it’s now a vacant lot.

Screen Shot 2016-08-19 at 8.04.35 PM

North Carolina Wills and Estates, 1665-1998 [database on-line], http://www.ancestry.com; photo of Rev. Smith courtesy of Wilson County Public Library Local History and Genealogy Blog.

Rev. Owen L.W. Smith.


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).