Who was Sarah J. Smith/Tompkins/Garnet? She was an Black American educator and suffragist and first African-American female school principal in New York City.

Sarah Smith was born Minsarah Smith on July 31, 1831, in New York City, to farming parents Sylvanus Smith (1800 – 1875), and Ann Eliza Springsteel/Smith (1815 – 1896). Sarah was the oldest of eleven children, and oldest sister to Susan Smith/McKinney/Steward (March 1847 – March 17, 1918), was the first Black American woman in New York State to earn a medical degree, and the third in the United States.

Sarah led a long and distinguished career in New York public school system. She began her as a teaching assistant in 1845, at the age fourteen. Sarah married Samuel Tompkins, but the marriage was short lived. In 1852 Samuel Tompkins passed away. The couple had two children during their marriage, in which both children died prematurely.


In 1854, Sarah began teaching at the African Free School, in New York. Sarah was the founder of the Brooklyn Suffrage Organization or Equal Suffrage league in Brooklyn in the late 1800s. Sarah was also the superintendent of Suffrage for the National Association of Colored Women’s Club. Despite the work load Sarah had, she owned and managed a seamstress shop in Brooklyn, New York from 1883, until her death in 1911.


Sarah remarried in 1879, to prominent Black leader and abolitionist, Henry Highland Garnet (December 23, 1815 – February 13, 1882), but this marriage was also short lived. 3 years later, while on an appointment as Ambassador in Liberia, Garnet fell ill, and died on February 13, 1882, in Monrovia, Liberia.

Sarah traveled with her sister, Susan Steward to London, England for the inaugural Universal Races Congress of 1911, where Susan Steward presented the paper “Colored American Women.” This would be Sarah last trip. Soon after the sisters returned from London, Sarah Smith/Tompkins/Garnet died at her home in Brooklyn, New York, on September 17, 1911, at the age 80.


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