Sweet Auburn: The Magazine of the Friends of Mount Auburn Lives of the Past Informing the Future - Page 10

Joshua Bowen Smith (1813–1879) Joshua Bowen Smith was an African American born free in Pennsylvania and educated by Quakers. When he moved to Boston in 1836, he worked as a waiter at the Mount Washington Hotel (in South Boston). He quickly attracted the notice of Francis Shaw, a prominent Boston businessman and abolitionist. Shaw hired Smith to be chief steward of the Shaw household, where Smith got to know the young Robert Gould Shaw, who would lead the Massachusetts 54th Colored Regiment in the Civil War. After Colonel Shaw died in battle in South Carolina, Smith led the effort to create a monument to Shaw and the Massachusetts 54th on Boston Common. When the Shaws moved to New York, Smith remained in Boston and started his own catering company, which served at almost every important public banquet in Boston over the course of forty years. He was especially known for his skill as a pastry chef, but his company’s fare was diverse—they served 65 different dishes at Boston’s Fourth of July banquet for 1,600 people at Fanueil Hall in 1850. 1 Smith was also a determined abolitionist. He was an early member of Boston’s Vigilance Committee, dedicated to stopping slave catchers. His home in Cambridge served as an important stop on the Underground Railroad, and he frequently employed runaway slaves as waiters and cooks in his catering business. This not only gave them employment but also allowed them to serve as an intelligence- gathering network, as they quietly served among crowds of the well-connected. In 1850, Smith famously preached a sermon at the Belknap Street Church in Boston (AKA the African Meeting House) in response to the passing of the Fugitive Slave Law. Brandishing a pistol in one hand and a knife in the other, he urged listeners to resist slave catchers by any means necessary—to kill them, or if that was impossible, to kill themselves, rather than be dragged into slavery. He was friends with Charles Sumner and many other notable politicians and abolitionists, and Sumner served as his attorney when Smith sued the state of Massachusetts over a catering bill for $40,000 ($1.2 million in today’s dollars) that Governor Andrew had refused to pay, for supplying the 12 th Massachusetts Regiment with three months of meals. The debt incurred dogged Smith for the rest of his life. After the war, he remained active politically and was elected as Cambridge’s state representative from 1873–74. Smith’s house on Norfolk Street in Cambridge is now an AirBnb. I wonder what he would think about that? I love that Joshua Bowen Smith was a self- made man who took action to fight slavery and to promote civil rights. To be honest, I never thought about catering as an important nineteenth-century profession, but it allowed a black man to amass a fortune and use his connections to push for positive change. Plus he was a badass who could also make a mean puff pastry. (I’m writing about Joshua Bowen Smith as part of a moonlight abolitionist play that’s in its early stages.) Support for The Mount Auburn Plays has been generously provided by the following: 8 Funded in part by a grant from the Mildred Jones Keefe Fund for Massachusetts of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The Bob Jolly Charitable Trust Mary Lee T. & Peter C. Aldrich Eliza & Michael Anderson Jennifer J. Gilbert Patricia B. & John Jacoby Virginia J. Brady & William F. Mann Jeanne & Joel Mooney Caroline V. Mortimer