Chester R. Smith

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Students at St. Kate’s are engaging with the WTDN in a variety of classes. Here’s how our students are thinking about the issues related to housing inequality and housing segregation. Their work demonstrates “thinking in progress”. 

Chester R. Smith

By Anastasia Rousseau | Spring 2021

As for Chester R. Smith, I don’t think he’ll land
Now, just to show you the style of man,
And what I have based my opinions upon,
I’ll tell you some facts of Chester Smith.
I’ll tell you about how he refuses to rent
To a colored man, who’s on honesty bent.
I says to him now, I says, “Chettie,” says I
:I wish you would tell me now, no one is nigh
Just why you won’t rent me a house.”
Says he, “Come round about half past 11 p.m.,
If you can’t get a home here, you might get one in heaven.”
I left him then with tears in my eyes,
And that sad forlorn look which makes men wise.
And that night in my prayers, I remembered him -“Nit.”
For I think he’ll miss heaven when he makes his exit.”
But I think he’ll have plenty of time forget,
With our thousand votes we’ll conquer him yet;
And I’ll work night and day against this same “Chet,”
So these are the reasons I’m taking the ground
That Chet Smith is the man who is sure to be downed.
Although, I’m describing his fallings so fine
It takes out the linking of their arms in mine,
And like all the rest, I’ll be falling in line,
And voting for Robert A. Smith (1)

Chester R. Smith was running for mayor of St. Paul in 1900. Born and raised in St. Paul, Chester Smith worked at his father’s firm Smith & Lewis, engaged in the wood and coal business on East Seventh Street. In 1883, Smith left his father’s business to start his own real estate agency, called Smith & Taylor. At the time, it was recognized as one of the largest real estate and loan businesses in the city, with properties in all parts of St. Paul. Not only did he work in his business, but as a chairman of the Republican city and county organization since 1898, he became the first Vice President of the State agricultural association that is responsible for the annual State Fair. Recognized for all his hard work, the judges of the district court appointed Mr. Smith as one of the fifteen men to prepare a new charter for the city as well.

Unfortunately, there were rumors that Chester R. Smith was unwilling to sell or rent to African Americans. Chester R.Smith was running against Robert A. Smith, the democratic candidate who had proclaimed that Chester R. Smith repeatedly denied African Americans homes through his real estate business. One of the victims of his discrimination wrote a poem titled “Chetty” Smith detailing his refusal to sell to African Americans due to the color of their skin. While trying to find his own home, the writer is confronted with a death threat from Chester Smith when stating, “If you can’t get a home here, you might get one in heaven,”. The writer encourages his readers to vote for Robert A. Smith, Chester Smith’s opposition in the mayoral race.

After hearing these allegations, many members of the black community that had purchased or rented homes from Chester R. Smith defended him stating that it simply was not true that Chester R. Smith discriminated against Black renters or home buyers. For example, a man by the name Mr. Thomas Jefferson rented a home from Chester R. Smith stated, “he has known Mr. Smith for the past fifteen years and has had numerous business relations with him, always of a most pleasant character, and has always found him to be a perfect gentleman, with whom color cuts no figure.” (2). In an effort to refute the rumors against Chester R. Smith, The Appeal, a black newspaper, offered a story about Robert A. Smith and his position in relation to Black home ownership. In 1890, Robert A. Smith bought a lot next to Mr. Thomas H. Lyles, a wealthy Black homeowner who did not support Robert Smith in an earlier campaign for mayor. In response, Robert Smith built a livery barn, a stable where horses and other farm animals lived, on his lot very close to Lyles’ property. The barn decreased the economic value of Mr. Lyles land. When Mr. Lyles asked Robert Smith to buy or trade the land, Robert Smith denied his request and shortly Mr. Lyles moved out of his home.

In the end, Chester R. Smith was not elected as Mayor of St. Paul, Minnesota. Political candidates were important for the Black community as for many years Black individuals could not vote in our local, state, or national elections. They looked to vote for individuals who supported the growth and equality for Black communities This story demonstrates that as early as 1900, debates about who could live where were already important to community members in St. Paul. 10 years before the first racial covenant in Ramsey County, white people were already developing ways to claim spaces as white spaces. Through the support of racial covenants, systematic homeownership was established and continues to live in our current disparities today.

Sources/Further Reading:

  1. “The Fact That ‘Chetty’ Smith…”(1900, April 8).  St. Paul Daily Globe.
  2. Chester R. Smith: A Few Items Regarding Him.”  The Appeal. (1900, April 14).