Back to Results
Historical Highlights

The Appointment of William H. Smith as House Librarian

December 09, 1881
The Appointment of William H. Smith as House Librarian Annual Report of James Kerr, Clerk of the House of Representatives, Receipts and Disbursements of the House of Representatives From December 8, 1891, to June 30, 1892, 52nd Congress, 2nd sess., Misc. Doc. 7. In this late 1891 Clerk Report, William H. Smith is listed as "Librarian."
On this date, William Henry Smith—a prominent African-American Washingtonian—was appointed Librarian of the House. Smith was a District of Columbia native, born in August 1833, and he lived in the city his entire life. House records show him on Clerk of the House Edward McPherson’s payroll as a library messenger as early as 1864, at the time that Whitelaw Reid (future editor of the New York Tribune and U.S. vice presidential candidate) served as House Librarian. According to an article published decades later in the Chicago Tribune, Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts helped Smith to secure the messenger’s job. He remained in that post until McPherson (who had left and returned as Clerk) elevated him to House Librarian in the 47th Congress (1881–1883). The appointment proved controversial for McPherson and the Republican majority because Smith became one of the highest-ranking African Americans in the federal government at a time when the hard-won rights of many freedmen in the South were being rolled back. Despite some opposition from southern Representatives, the New York Times reported, “the generally expressed opinion that Smith was the ablest man possible to place in charge of the library, and his popularity as a capable and attentive official, carried the day and he kept the place.” Members of both parties regarded him as a reference “authority” with a “memory of speeches, and points made by different public men in debate, [that] was remarkable.” In the following Congress, when Democrats regained control of the chamber, Smith was demoted to Assistant Librarian serving under William Butler (brother of Senator Matthew C. Butler of South Carolina, a former Confederate general). When Republicans were returned to the majority in the 1888 elections and McPherson was reinstalled as Clerk, Smith was again elevated to Librarian. He retired from the House at the conclusion of the 51st Congress (1889–1891). Smith and his wife, Annie, raised five children and led active civic lives. Smith served for years on the District’s school board, joining with Frederick Douglass to oppose the establishment of segregated schools. Smith also was a founding member of St. Augustine’s, the city’s oldest Black Catholic Church. In 1892, he was named custodian of the library and art gallery of the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago.

Related Highlight Subjects