In Lancaster, restoring image of an unlikely Civil War pair White leader, black woman shared cause - and home.

Posted: March 04, 2010

LANCASTER — The white, four-foot gravestone has been jostled by the freezes and thaws of 126 Pennsylvania winters; weather and inattention have conspired to bring its inscription to the edge of illegibility.

"She was an amazing woman," says Darlene Colon, hugging herself against a cold wind. "It was extremely rare for any woman to own property in the years before the Civil War, let alone an African American woman. Yet she was a well-respected woman in her own right, moving easily in polite white society."

She kneels, squints, and reads the inscription:

Lydia Hamilton

Relict [widow] of Jacob Smith

Many years the trusted house keeper of

Honorable Thaddeus Stevens

Born February 14, 1813, Gettysburg, PA

Died February 14, 1884, Washington, D.C.

She stands and pleats her mouth in disapproval. "Her reputation was destroyed by a movie. We're trying to set the record straight."

Lydia Hamilton Smith, the daughter of an African American mother and an Irish father, was a close associate (confidante is the most accepted term) of Thaddeus Stevens, the abolitionist U.S. representative from Lancaster. As leader of the radical antislavery Republicans, Stevens was the prime mover behind the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution, which abolished slavery and guaranteed equal rights and voting rights to blacks.

For the final 20 years of his life, Stevens, a bachelor, lived with Smith, whose title was housekeeper but who was his business manager, adviser on personal matters, and, recent historic evidence suggests, his partner in sheltering runaway slaves.

Darlene Ann Colon is the great-great-great-granddaughter of a free black man who was successfully defended by Stevens against criminal charges involving his sheltering of fugitive slaves in 1851.

"It was that discovery - that Stevens essentially got my freedom-fighter ancestor off the hook - that got me interested in Stevens," she says. "This in turn led me to Lydia Smith, who now is an object of my ongoing fascination."

For the last decade, Colon, a bank employee from Lancaster, pursued information on Smith and anyone who might have known her. Colon combed through birth certificates, church and cemetery records, marriage certificates, personal diaries, wills, and death certificates. She often portrays Smith in period dress at historic reenactments and other observances.

Smith and Stevens were demonized in D.W. Griffith's classic 1915 motion picture, The Birth of a Nation, which the American Film Institute in 1998 placed 44th among its top 100 American films because of its artistic innovations and technical effects.

But for all its cinematic greatness, the film is explicitly racist, pro-slavery, and pro-Ku Klux Klan. Two of its main characters are Austin Stoneman, who is modeled after Stevens, and Lydia Brown, his mulatto mistress and clearly the alter ego of Smith.

Stevens is pictured as a malevolent, South-hating lecher, Smith as a lascivious, immoral seductress. In one scene, Lydia begins ripping off her clothing in a sexual frenzy.

To be sure, there has always been speculation that Stevens and Smith were romantic partners.

Right after the Civil War, the Lancaster Intelligencer declared: "Nobody doubts that Thaddeus Stevens has always been in favor of negro equality, and here, where his domestic arrangements are so well known, his practical recognition of his pet theory is perfectly well understood. . . . There are few men who have given to the world such open and notorious evidence of a belief in negro equality as Thaddeus Stevens. A personage, not of his race, a female of dusky hue, daily walks the streets of Lancaster when Mr. Stevens is at home. She has presided over his house for years. Even by his own party friends, she is constantly spoken of as Mrs. Stevens."

Tim Smedick, executive director of the Historic Preservation Trust of Lancaster County, says there is no conclusive evidence to prove or disprove whether Stevens and Smith were lovers.

"It doesn't matter how intimate they were. The mere fact that they had a personal relationship that was deep and public was extraordinary for the time and the place," he says.

"In spite of all the rumors and innuendos about their relationship, Stevens and Smith courageously continued their remarkable partnership in an era of strict segregation."

Colon says Stevens always treated Smith with respect in public. "He insisted that she be addressed as 'Mrs. Smith' or 'Madame' at a time when most black women in Lancaster would have been called by their first name," Colon says. "When she came in a room, he got up and offered her his chair. She was at his bedside when he died."

Despite a commitment to racial equality that was well ahead of his time, Stevens has been accorded very limited recognition from the city where he lived from 1842 until he died in 1868. Wheatland, the home of Stevens' neighbor, President James Buchanan, a far more compromising figure in the slavery issue, has been restored and is one of Lancaster's premier historic attractions.

The Preservation Trust hopes to remedy this irony, and is working on restoring Stevens' house, a building owned by Smith, and an adjacent tavern in downtown Lancaster. The trust is planning an $18 million museum complex devoted to Stevens and Smith that would be part of the city's new convention center.

Work on the project began in 2001, and in 2003 student archaeologists uncovered what is believed to be an underground hiding place for runaway slaves - and perhaps the most important of Stevens and Smith's ventures.

The students found in the courtyard behind Stevens' house a buried cistern that could have been a stop of the Underground Railroad, which shepherded slaves to freedom in the years before the Civil War ended.

"Cisterns were popular as hiding places," Smedick says, "and this one was modified in ways that make us believe it was part of the escape route. There is evidence of a passageway to a nearby tavern, and a spittoon was found inside the cistern."

There is no documentation on how the cistern might have been used, and information about the railroad is scarce because it was clandestine and illegal.

Standing next to Smith's grave, Colon emits a little sigh of regret.

"There is no doubt in my mind that Lydia and Stevens were working with the Underground Railroad," she says. "We know that Stevens had a network of spies that watched slave catchers. The cistern had an outside hatch and an air hole. And why else would there be a spittoon?" Her voice trails off. "But there's so much we don't know . . ."

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