Elizabeth Smith — Trailblazing Black Educator

Erected in 1769, the Old Brick Schoolhouse made history in 1828 when it became a public school for pupils of color, known then as the Meeting Street Grammar School. And it was a Black woman, Elizabeth Howland Smith, nee Brown, whose rigorous educational standards as teacher and principal brought honor to both the school and her high-performing students. The building is currently the headquarters of the Providence Preservation Society (PPS) who recently shared a fascinating biography of this remarkable woman. The piece supplies the cultural context of the times and the local Black community in which she lived and worked. (Ironically, her professional success nearly undermined the desegregation efforts of the day. It’s complicated.)

Although originally led by a white teacher, in 1836, the School Committee appointed Ransom Parker, a Black man, as principal of the school. In 1838, a teenaged Elizabeth H. Brown was appointed assistant at the Meeting Street Grammar School, becoming (in all likelihood) the first Black woman public school teacher in Providence and beginning her almost 50-year career in education. In 1842, she was promoted to “preceptress” (i.e. principal), of the newly created primary school in the same building. In addition to her teaching career, Elizabeth actively participated in community affairs, as a member of the Providence Ladies Anti-Slavery Society and a donor to the Association for the Benefit of Colored Children.

PPS development coordinator, Kate Blankenship, first uncovered Elizabeth Smith’s name in early records for the Meeting Street School and subsequently conducted original research to better understand her contributions. This post is a shorter version of the paper Blankenship authored to document her research findings.

In addition to assembling the first known biography of Elizabeth Howland Smith, the PPS has also named their internship program in her honor “as one small way to call attention to her lifetime of educational service and restore some piece of her legacy.”

Elizabeth H. Smith is buried in the North Burial Ground; there are no known likenesses of her.

(The featured photo of the schoolhouse was taken two years ago when it was looking kind of perfect. The building is currently undergoing necessary upgrades.)

PPS, 21 Meeting Street, (directions)

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