Born into slavery either in 1850 or 1853 (census records differ), Ashley W. Smith remained in Smithfield, North Carolina after the Civil War. By the early 1900s, Smith was one of Smithfield’s wealthiest property owners. He died on January 11, 1928.
Smith called Johnston County home his entire life. He married Eveline, called “Lina,” on January 9, 1880. Ashley was approximately twenty-seven years old and Lina, twenty. From this union, Charles, known as “Charlie,” was born in 1883. Charles later married Ella, and together they had two children.
Ashley Smith overcame pre-Civil War bondage and post-war segregation to become a local leader and man of considerable wealth. Throughout his life, Ashley W. Smith embodied the values of thrift and hard work and evinced an entrepreneurial spirit. Born a slave, he started working as a farmer and a laborer soon after the war’s end (The 1870 census taker recorded Smith as illiterate). He labored long and hard and saved his money. In 1875, Smith bought his first town lot; sometime before 1880, he bought a small farm outside of Smithfield. He later acquired some town lots when he married Eveline in 1880. By 1885, Ashley Smith owned 36 acres and three town lots. Smith meanwhile continued tilling the land and managing a successful farm. In the late 1880s or early 1890s, he also constructed a two-story building in town; it served as the offices for numerous African American businesses; according to The Smithfield Herald, a “lucrative profit” was made. Smith meanwhile opened a store in one of his buildings.
Johnston countians admired Smith’s “pluck, energy, perseverance, and close application to business.” Others considered Ashley W. Smith’s accumulations of property as evidence of good citizenship. Possibly for these reasons, Smithfield residents during the 1890s chose Smith to represent them on the Board of Town Commissioners. In an age of Fusion politics, Smith was one of nine commissioners (three black and six white) to request federal inspectors to ensure that an honest election was held. This request angered many Democrats, who feared the resurgence of Republican and African American power.
Although some indicate that the Smiths fell on hard times, the evidence is not conclusive. In a 1995 interview, Bettina Smith Wilson remembered that bad financial circumstances dictated that the Smiths move to Harlem in New York City for a while; Charlie enlisted in the Army, more than likely to help make ends meet. Another account mentions that if Lina, a seamstress, had not opened a shop, the Smiths would have lost their home. But a look at the General Index to Real Estate Conveyances of Johnston County mentions Smiths name in 975 transactions, with most occurring in the first decades of the twentieth century; by the 1920s, the number decreased significantly, for Ashley Smith had sold $31,840 of his property. The 1915 Tax List mentions that Smith had $14,800 in real and personal property and that he paid a total of $19,592 in taxes, a significant amount even for today. Thus, it seems that Smith’s financial situation was less stable, but he remained successful overall in finding ways to make money.
Although never famous by modern-day entertainment standards, Smith led an eventful and industrious life that Johnston countians admired. His greatest accomplishment may have been providing an example of what a black property owner could achieve in a small town during the late 1800s and early 1900s.
Robert C. Kenzer, Enterprising Southerners: Black Economic Success in North Carolina, 1865-1915 (Charlottesville, 1997); “Old Homes and Interesting Places in and near Smithfield” [n.d.], The Heritage Center, Smithfield, North Carolina; Ashley W. Smith File, The Heritage Center, Smithfield, North Carolina; The Smithfield Herald, 4 May 1893.