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"U.S. minister to Liberia, 1898-1902; born into slavery. Pastor, St. John A.M.E. Zion Church in Wilson. Lived 1/10 mi. N." 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 (the top diplomatic post) in Monrovia, Liberia. Owen Lun Worth Smith was the last in that line. It is noteworthy that another North Carolinian, Andrew Cartwright, was a leading A.M.E. Zion missionary in Liberia.
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. Smith 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 in Wilson where he lived the rest of his life. In 1897 he sought the diplomatic post and received endorsements from the governor, attorney general, congressmen, and others. From a field of forty-three applicants he was the choice of President William McKinley. During his first of four years in Liberia he received an honorary doctorate from Livingstone College. Smith, who failed in efforts to gain other diplomatic postings, died in 1926 and is buried in Wilson.
Biographical Sketch of Rev. Owen L. W. Smith, D. D., U. S. Minister to Liberia (n.d.)
James W. Hood, One Hundred Years of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church (1895)
State Department records, National Archives
Star of Zion, various issues, 1897-1902, including Smith’s “Liberian Letter”
William S. Powell, ed., Dictionary of North Carolina Biography, V, 385-386—sketch by Hugh B. Johnston and Brenda Eagles
Related Themes: C.S.A., Confederate States of America, Confederacy
North Carolina Civil War Historical Markers.