Stephen Smith was a merchant and abolitionist. He was born into slavery in Dauphin County, Pennsylvania, to Mary Smith around 1795. There are no records of his father. Early in life, Smith was able to purchase his freedom.
He later established a business in Columbia, Pennsylvania, where he owned coal, lumber yards, and land where these resources were obtained. During the years before the Civil War, the main manner of transporting coal and lumber from the source was the system of canals. In Central Pennsylvania, the canal system was also associated with the Susquehanna River. Smith was known to use this route to travel up and down the river to make deliveries, purchases, and to check on his holdings. This particular route was also the route slaves used to escape to freedom and head north to Canada.
After the Civil War, Smith admitted that the lumber company he owned had helped transport many escapees to freedom, most likely on the canal network and later the railroad network that connected into Canada. Once the Fugitive Slave law was passed in 1850, Smith fled to Canada. However, he returned later to Pennsylvania and continued his business practices. After the Civil War, Stephen Smith contributed $250,000 to establish the Stephen Smith Home for Aged and Infirm Colored Persons.
Smith also became involved in civil rights activities. He opposed the policies of the American Colonization Society and demonstrated his opposition in 1831, when he led free blacks in Columbia in a public meeting. He later joined men such as David Ruggles, John Peck, Abraham Shadd, and John B. Vashon, who were the first black agents for Freedom’s Journal and later for The Emancipator.