Louise Smith's Life in the North

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Detail, "Virginia Fuel Company," c. 1960, Tindley Temple. Smith, shown here, was an active member of the church, among other things serving on the committee tasked with raising money for fuel for the church building.  

Experience the curated audio index of Louise Smith's oral history interview.

Louise Smith was born and raised in North Carolina to parents born under slavery. When she was a child, both parents recounted stories from their own childhoods.  

“She said she only remember one brother and he was sold, just like cattle. But I don’t like to talk about it. Because my father used to sit down and explain things to us, what they went through. And it used to make my blood boil…. Yeah. He would tell us. And I said, ‘Pop, don’t tell me no more. I don’t want to hear it.’ And so he wouldn’t tell me no more. But he used to tell me how they used to beat them and then rub them down with salt. And salt burns. And—oh!—the things my father used to tell me, I used to tell him, ‘Don’t tell me no more.’” – Louise Smith, 1984

Louise always performed well in school, but after ninth grade, which was the highest for Black students in her community, Smith decided not to attend Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina, as her mother wished. Instead, she headed North to join her older sister Pauline in Philadelphia.

“I wanted to come north to help my parents. Because my father—I’m going to show you his picture—my father, when he was working at home... They had those crossties they put across the railroad tracks. It was a man loading—helping load one of the freight cars with those ties. And he dropped his in. And he broke five ribs and his back. He wasn’t able to do a day’s work from that time on. And then there was nobody. Then my sister had two children. And she had them at home. And was eight of us, to feed. And I said to my mother, ‘Please let me go away.’” –  Louise Smith, 1984

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Atlantic City, New Jersey circa. 1910-1915. Soon after arriving in Philadelphia, Louise Smith spent a summer in Atlantic City with her sister. There some of the girls she worked with took her to a beer garden. "And they were drinking beer and everything," recalled Smith, "And they tried to make me drink beer. That's the night I kicked over the table."  


In Philadelphia, Louise found a job as a domestic, working for $3.00 a week in a home in West Philadelphia.  Soon, she followed her sister to Atlantic City and there experienced a darker side of northern life.  One night, while she was working as a cook on Ocean Avenue, Smith came home to find her roommate with a man, and another man, with a patch over his eye, waiting for her. 

“And when she came in there and brought another guy and she was in the bed with that guy and had another one sitting up there, waiting for me, I wasn’t about to go bed. I didn’t go to bed. I went back down to Mrs. King. And that’s the night…she told me, if I leave out of that room, she was going to beat me! She was much older than I was. She was older, like my sister. She thought she was going to be my boss. But I had strong willpower. You don’t put me under no subjection, especially when I know you’re wrong.... And I had paid the rent too, so she could have the rent. I took my little stuff. And she told me I wasn’t going out of that room. She jumped up to fight me. I went back to the house and got one of the girls to come up there and get my thing. And she come up there and help me pack my things. And I went back down to Mrs. King, and that’s where I stayed until I left to come home.” – Louise Smith, 1984


Rev. Charles Tindley, circa 1920. Born and raised in rural Maryland, Charles A. Tindley (1851-1933) became pastor of East Calvary United Methodist Church in 1902.  One of the most influential African-American clergymen in Philadelphia, Tindley was a mentor and leader for thousands who moved to Philadelphia as part of the First Great Migration.  Dr. Tindley opened the doors of his church to anyone, and because of this, East Calvary became known as "The Church that Welcomed 10,000 Strangers."

Smith soon returned to Philadelphia. Shortly after arriving in the city, in 1910, she joined the congregation of East Calvary Methodist Church, led by Reverend Charles A. Tindley (legally renamed the Tindley Temple in 1927).  Actively involved in the Church, Smith was an usher and sang in the choir for the rest of her life.  Dr. Tindley also mentored Smith, and provided her with guidance.  During the First Great Migration, Dr. Tindley, one of the city's most charismatic and popular ministers, opened the Church to southern newcomers.  Tindley also believed that all people are created equal, regardless of their race, and preached this to his congregation. 

“Well, one thing, Dr. Tindley… he said, ‘The Lord made all of us.’ He used to talk about a black cow can give white milk and a black hen can lay a white egg as well as a white hen can lay a brown egg. But he talked about all colors. And he said, ‘You don’t have no trouble with this race business, only through the human race.’ He said, ‘You go out in the field and look at the cows, the black cows, spotted cows, white cows, brown cows. All of them are grazing together.’ He said, ‘But this race, this human race…they fight.’” 
– Louise Smith, 1984 

During World War I, Smith married her first husbandthe “bad one," as she called himand after their wedding, moved to Baltimore. When he carried on with other women, Smith moved back to Philadelphia, where one night he cut her with a razor blade. Smith had enough, so she went to South Street to buy a gun.

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"I'll Overcome Some Day," 1901. Sheet music courtesy of Cyber Hymnal. One of the founding fathers of American gospel, Dr. Charles Albert Tindley wrote over fifty hymns. In the 1960s, his hymn "I'll Overcome Some Day" was refashioned into the powerful Civil Rights anthem "We Shall Overcome." According to Louise Smith, "All of his songs wasn’t written just because what he saw, but it was through his experience what he had gone through." Dr. Tindley published a compilation of his hymns entitled "The Songs of Paradise," in 1905.


“One night, I attempted to kill my husband, the first one. I went in the store on South Street and bought the gun...to kill him. And as [soon] as I had—I got that money, got that gun, he would have been dead and I’d been pulling time. But something spoke to me, just as plain, and said, ‘Vengeance is mine and I will repay,’ says the Lord. Instead of getting the gun, I came home to church, on a Tuesday night, to prayer meeting.” – Louise Smith, 1984

After the prayer meeting, Smith spoke to Dr. Tindley, who offered her advice that she remembered the rest of her life. 

“Dr. Tindley got up that night and he told how the devil’ll get you in trouble but he never know nobody that the devil get out. And after the devil get you—he showed how he prance. And when he got through, I went to him like a child and cried on his shoulder and told him he was talking to me, because I had just attempted to get a gun. He closed his eyes and put both arms around me and he said, ‘Daughter, I want you to go home tonight, and get on your knees and ask God to take him out of your heart. Because he ain’t worth you getting yourself in trouble for.’ And he said, ‘And I’ll going to pray with you.’ I did what he told me. I went home that night, right around here at 1522 Catherine Street. I got on my knees and I prayed to the Lord. I cried. I prayed. I cried. Every time I went to get up, like somebody would push me right back. I stayed down there, until the burden was lifted. And when the burden was lifted, I felt like I had wings, I could fly away.” – Louise Smith, 1984 

Smith worked for many years as a domestic, and then as a cook in a boarding house for students from Jefferson Medical College. House work, according to Smith, was easy, like kissing your hand. When interviewed in 1984, Smith was still living in the apartment at 1522 Catharine Street that Reverend Tindley had found her soon after her arrival in the city. In her nineties, she was still active in East Calvary Methodist Church, and still remembered her mother's advice.

“Well, when we were growing up, my mother always wanted us to never take gifts from boys. It puts you under obligation. And that’s one thing we never did, take no nothin’. If you wanted treats, you—something, you don’t take it. They want to give you something, don’t take it! So that was one thing I would always wonder. What’s mine is mine. But yours is yours. And I don’t take what you give me. So that was one of the things that I never did…. Because my mother taught us in that book. ‘Train a child, and the way it should go and when it grows old, it won’t depart from it.’ And I’m a witness. (laughter) I’ve lived to past 90 years.” – Louise Smith, 1984

Louise Smith's Life in the North