James McCune Smith
James McCune Smith (April 18, 1813 – November 17, 1865) was an African-American physician, apothecary, abolitionist, and author in New York City. He was the first African American to hold a medical degree and graduated at the top in his class at the University of Glasgow in Scotland. After his return to the United States, he became the first African American to run a pharmacy in that nation.
James McCune Smith
Inscription: "First regularly-educated Colored Physician in the United States."
|Died||November 17, 1865 (aged 52)|
|Alma mater||African Free School|
|Institutions||Free Negro Orphan Asylum|
In addition to practicing as a doctor for nearly 20 years at the Colored Orphan Asylum in Manhattan, Smith was a public intellectual: he contributed articles to medical journals, participated in learned societies, and wrote numerous essays and articles drawing from his medical and statistical training. He used his training in medicine and statistics to refute common misconceptions about race, intelligence, medicine, and society in general. Invited as a founding member of the New York Statistics Society in 1852, which promoted a new science, he was elected as a member in 1854 of the recently founded American Geographic Society. But he was never admitted to the American Medical Association or local medical associations.
He has been most well known for his leadership as an abolitionist: a member of the American Anti-Slavery Society, with Frederick Douglass he helped start the National Council of Colored People in 1853, the first permanent national organization for blacks. Douglass called Smith "the single most important influence on his life."
Smith was one of the Committee of Thirteen, who organized in 1850 in New York City to resist the newly passed Fugitive Slave Law by aiding refugee slaves through the Underground Railroad. Other leading abolitionist activists were among his friends and colleagues. From the 1840s, Smith lectured on race and abolitionism and wrote numerous articles to refute racist ideas about black capacities.
Both Smith and his wife were of mixed-race African and European ancestry. As he became economically successful, Smith built a house in a mostly white neighborhood; in the 1860 census he and his family were classified as white, along with their neighbors. In 1850 they were classified as mulatto, when living in a predominately African-American neighborhood.
Smith served for nearly 20 years as the doctor at the Colored Orphan Asylum in New York. After it was burned down in July 1863 by a mob in the New York Draft Riots, in which nearly 100 blacks were killed, Smith moved his family and practice to Brooklyn for their safety. Many other blacks left Manhattan for Brooklyn at the same time. The parents stressed education for their children. In the 1870 census, his widow and children continued to be classified as white.
To escape racial discrimination and have more opportunities, his children passed into white society: the four surviving sons married white spouses; his unmarried daughter lived with a brother. They worked as teachers, a lawyer, and business people. Smith's unique achievements as a pioneering African-American doctor were rediscovered by 20th-century historians. They were relearned by his descendants in the twenty-first century, who identified as white and did not know about him, when a three-times-great-granddaughter took a history class and found his name in her grandmother's family bible. In 2010, several Smith descendants commissioned a new tombstone for his grave in Brooklyn. They gathered to honor him and their African-American ancestry.
Early life and educationEdit
Smith was born into slavery in 1813 in New York City and was set free on July 4, 1827, at age 14, by the Emancipation Act of New York. That was the final date when New York officially freed its remaining slaves. His mother was an enslaved woman named Lavinia who achieved her freedom later in life; in 1855, Smith described her as a "self-emancipated woman." She was born into slavery in South Carolina and had been brought to New York as a slave.[permanent dead link] His father was Samuel Smith, a white merchant and his mother's master, who had brought her with him to New York from South Carolina.
The boy grew up only with his mother. As an adult, James Smith alluded to other white ancestry through his mother's family, saying he had kin in the South, some of whom were slaveholders and others slaves.
Smith attended the African Free School (AFS) #2 on Mulberry Street in Manhattan, where he was described as an "exceptionally bright student". He was among numerous boys from the school who went on to have brilliant careers, some of whom he worked with as adults in the abolitionist cause.
In the course of his studies, Smith was tutored by Rev. Peter Williams, Jr., a graduate of the African Free School who had been ordained in 1826 as the second African-American priest in the Episcopal Church. Upon graduation, he applied to Columbia University and Geneva Medical College in New York State, but was denied admission due to racial discrimination. Williams encouraged Smith to attend the University of Glasgow in Scotland. He and abolitionist benefactors of the AFS provided Smith with money for his trip overseas and his education. Smith kept a journal of his sea voyage that expressed his sense of mission. After arriving in Liverpool and walking along the waterfront, he thought, "I am free!"
Through abolitionist connections, he was welcomed there by members of the London Agency Anti-Slavery Society. According to the historian Thomas M. Morgan, Smith enjoyed the relative racial tolerance in Scotland and England, which officially abolished slavery in 1833. (New York abolished all slavery in 1827.) He studied and graduated at the top of his class. He obtained a bachelor's degree in 1835, a master's degree in 1836, and a medical degree in 1837. He completed an internship in Paris.
Marriage and familyEdit
After his return to New York and getting established, in the early 1840s Smith married Malvina Barnet, a free woman of color who was a graduate of the Rutger Female Institute. They had eleven children and five survived to adulthood. The name of one of the children is unknown:
- Frederick Douglass Smith (d. 1854), not to be confused with Frederick Douglass
- Peter Williams (d. 1854)
- Mary S.
- James W. (born 1845) became a teacher; he married and had an independent household by 1870.
- Henry M. (1847 - d. before 1859)
- Amy G. (c.1848-1849 - d. December 1849)
- Mary (also called Maude), born c.1855-56; never married; became a teacher and was living with her widowed brother Donald in 1900 in Queens. (Note: In the 1900 census, her birth was reported as September 1842, but this is not consistent with her age in the 1860 and 1870 censuses, and she did not appear in the 1850 census.)
- Donald (born 1858) became a lawyer, married and was a widower by 1900, living in Queens. His household included his older sister Maude and two siblings of his late wife: his widowed brother-in-law Edward, a physician born in England, and sister-in-law Emma Callaghan, an unmarried teacher.
- John M. (born February 1860) worked in Florida in an orange grove in the 1880s, per the Florida 1885 census. He married in 1888, and their three children were born in Florida. By 1900 he returned to Brooklyn with his family, and worked there as a printer.
- Muriel Smith (born 1861) date of death unknown. 
- Guy B., born 1862, first worked as a seaman. By 1900, he was married with several children and worked as a salesman. His youngest daughter was named Antoinette. In 1850, the senior Smith's household included four older women: Lavinia Smith, age 67 (his mother: b. c.1783 - d. bet.1860-1870), born in South Carolina and listed first as head of household; Sarah Williams, 57; Amelia Jones, 47; and Mary Hewlitt, 53, who were likely relatives or friends. By then Smith and his wife Malvina had three children: James, Henry and Amy. Each member of the household was classified as mulatto (or of mixed ancestry). All but Lavinia Smith were born in New York. They lived in a mixed neighborhood in the Fifth Ward; in the census, nearly all other neighbors on the page were classified as white; many were immigrants from England, Ireland, and France.
By 1860, Smith was doing very well; he had moved to Leonard Street within the Fifth Ward and had a mansion built by white workmen. His total real property was worth $25,000. His household included a live-in servant, Catherine Grelis from Ireland. Listed as a separate household at his address were Sara D. Williams, 57, and Mary Hertell (should be Hewlitt, as above), 50. (These were likely the same Sara and Mary as in the 1850 census, although their ages did not change.) No one on this census page had a racial designation. By the conventions of the time, this means that they were classified as white by the census enumerator; totals of white persons only are given at the bottom of the page.
After the New York City draft riots in 1863, Smith and his family were among prominent African Americans who left Manhattan and moved to Brooklyn, then still a separate city. He no longer felt safe in their old neighborhood.
In the 1870 census, Malvina (now a widow) and their four children were living in Ward 15, Brooklyn. All were classified as white. Their son James W. Smith, who had married a white woman, was living in a separate household and working as a teacher; he was also classified as white. The Smith children still at home were Maud, 15; Donald, 12; John, 10; and Guy, 8; all were attending school. These five Smith children survived to adulthood: James, Maud, Donald, John and Guy. The men married white spouses, but Maud never married. All were classified as white from 1860 onward.
They worked as teachers, a lawyer, and business people. Smith's unique achievements as a pioneering African-American doctor were rediscovered by 20th-century historians. They were relearned by his descendants in the twenty-first century, who identified as white and did not know about him with the passage of generations. A three-times-great-granddaughter took a history class and found his name in her grandmother's family bible. In 2010, several Smith descendants commissioned a new tombstone for his grave in Brooklyn. They gathered to honor him and their African-American ancestry.
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When Smith returned to New York City in 1837 with his degrees, he was greeted as a hero by the black community. He said at a gathering, "I have striven to obtain education, at every sacrifice and every hazard, and to apply such education to the good of our common country." He was the first university-trained African-American physician in the United States. During his practice of 25 years, he was also the first black to have articles published in American medical journals, but he was never admitted to the American Medical Association or to local ones.
He established his practice in Lower Manhattan in general surgery and medicine, treating both black and white patients. He started a school in the evenings, teaching children. He established what has been called the first black-owned and operated pharmacy in the United States, located at 93 West Broadway (near present-day Foley Square). His friends and activists gathered in the back room of the pharmacy to discuss issues related to their work in abolitionism.
In 1846, Smith was appointed as the only doctor of the Colored Orphan Asylum (also known as the Free Negro Orphan Asylum), at 44th Street and Fifth Avenue. (Before that time, the directors had depended on pro bono services of doctors.) He worked there for nearly 20 years. The asylum was founded in 1836 by Anna and Hannah Shotwell and Mary Murray, Quaker philanthropists in New York. Trying to protect the children, Smith regularly gave vaccinations for smallpox. Leading causes of death were infectious diseases: measles (for which there was no vaccine), smallpox, and tuberculosis (for which there was no antibiotic at the time). In addition to caring for orphans, the home sometimes boarded children temporarily when their parents were unable to support them, as jobs were scarce for free blacks in New York. Waves of immigration from Ireland and Germany in the 1840s and 1850s meant that many new immigrants were competing for work.
Smith was always working for the asylum. In July 1852, he presented the trustees with 5,000 acres provided by his friend Gerrit Smith, a wealthy white abolitionist. The land was to be held in trust and later sold for benefit of the orphans.
While in Scotland, Smith joined the Glasgow Emancipation Society and met people in the Scottish and English abolitionist movement. In 1833, Great Britain abolished slavery. When Smith returned to New York, he quickly joined the American Anti-Slavery Society and worked for the cause in the United States. He worked effectively with both black and white abolitionists, for instance maintaining a friendship and correspondence with Gerrit Smith that spanned the years from 1846-65.
Publishing articles quickly brought him to the attention of the national abolitionist movement. His "Destiny of the People of Color", "Freedom and Slavery for Africans", and "A lecture on the Haitian Revolution; with a note on Toussaint L'Ouverture", established him as a new force in the field. He directed the Colored People's Educational Movement (to the memory of Abraham Lincoln). In 1850, as a member of the Committee of Thirteen, Smith was one of the key organizers of resistance in New York City to the newly passed Fugitive Slave Act, which required states to aid federal law enforcement in capturing escaped slaves. As did similar groups in Boston, his committee aided fugitive slaves to escape capture and helped connect them to people of the Underground Railroad and other escape routes.
During the mid-1850s, Smith worked with Frederick Douglass to establish the National Council of Colored People, one of the first permanent black national organizations, beginning with a three-day convention in Rochester, New York. At the convention in Rochester, he and Douglass emphasized the importance of education for their race and urged the founding of more schools for black youth. Smith wanted choices available for both industrial and classical education. Douglass valued his rational approach and said that Smith was "the single most important influence on his life." Smith tempered the more radical people in the abolitionist movement and insisted on arguing from facts and analysis. He wrote a regular column in Douglass' paper, published under the pseudonym, 'Communipaw.'
Opposing the emigration of American free blacks to other countries, Smith believed that native-born Americans had the right to live in the United States and a claim by their labor and birth to their land. He gathered supporters to go to Albany to testify to the state legislature against proposed plans to support the American Colonization Society, which had supported sending free blacks to the colony of Liberia in Africa. He contributed money to revive the Weekly Anglo-African in 1861, as an anti-emigrationist[clarification needed] newspaper.
In the mid-1850s, Smith joined James W.C. Pennington and other black leaders in establishing the Legal Rights Association (LRA) in New York City. A pioneering minority-rights association, the LRA waged a nearly ten-year campaign against segregated public transportation in New York City. This organization successfully defeated segregation in New York and served as a model for later rights organizations, including the National Equal Rights League and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), founded in the early 20th century.
In July 1863, during the New York Draft Riots, Irish rioters attacked blacks throughout the city and burned down the orphan asylum. The children were saved by the staff and Union troops in the city. During its nearly 30 years, the orphan asylum had admitted 1310 children, and typically had about 200 in residence at a time.
After the riots, Smith moved his family and business out of Manhattan to Brooklyn, as did other prominent blacks. Numerous buildings had been destroyed in their old neighborhoods, and estimates were that some 100 blacks were killed in the rioting. No longer feeling safe in the lower Fourth Ward, the Smiths moved to Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
Professional associations and writingsEdit
Smith was a prolific writer and essayist. The historian John Stauffer of Harvard University says: "He was one of the leaders within the movement to abolish slavery, and he was one of the most original and innovative writers of his time."
In 1839, he followed Samuel Cornish as editor of The Colored American, a New York weekly newspaper owned by Philip Alexander Bell. Among his notable writings was a debate with John Hughes, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of New York, who was known as a racist and anti-abolitionist.
In 1840, Smith wrote the first case report by a black doctor, which his associate John Watson read at a meeting of the New York Medical and Surgical Society. (It acknowledged that Smith was qualified, but would not admit him because of racial discrimination.) Soon after, Smith published an article in the New York Journal of Medicine, the first by a black doctor in the US.
He drew from his medical training to discredit popular ideas about differences among the races. In 1843 he gave a lecture series, Comparative Anatomy and Physiology of the Races, to demonstrate the failings of phrenology, which was a so-called scientific practice of the time that was applied in a way to draw racist conclusions and attribute negative characteristics to ethnic Africans. He rejected the practice of homeopathy, an alternative to the scientific medicine being taught in universities. Although he had a successful medical career, Smith was never admitted to the American Medical Association or local associations because of racial discrimination.
In Glasgow, he was trained in the emerging science of statistics. He published numerous articles applying his statistical training. For example, he used statistics to refute the arguments of slave owners, who wrote that blacks were inferior and that slaves were better off than were free blacks or white urban laborers. To do this, he drew up statistical tables of data from the census.
When John C. Calhoun, then U.S. Secretary of State and former US Senator from South Carolina, claimed that freedom was bad for blacks, and that the 1840 U.S. Census showed that blacks in the North had high rates of insanity and mortality, Smith responded with a masterful paper. In "A Dissertation on the Influence of Climate on Longevity" (1846), published in Hunt's Merchants' Magazine, Smith analyzed the census both to refute Calhoun's conclusions and to show the correct way to analyze data. He showed that blacks in the North lived longer than slaves, attended church more, and were achieving scholastically at a rate similar to whites.
As Smith started publishing, his work was quickly accepted by newer scientific organizations: in 1852 Smith was invited to be a founding member of the New York Statistics Institute. In 1854 he was elected as a member by the American Geographical Society (founded in New York in 1851 by top scientists as well as wealthy amateurs interested in exploration). The Society recognized him by giving him an award for one of his articles. He joined the New-York Historical Society.
Among numerous other works supporting abolitionism and dealing with issues related to race, Smith was known for his introduction to Frederick Douglass's second autobiography, My Bondage and My Freedom (1855). It expressed the new independence in African-American accounts of slavery, compared to earlier works, which had to seek approval for authentication from white abolitionists, as readers rejected some harsh accounts of conditions under slavery.
... the worst of our institutions, in its worst aspect, cannot keep down energy, truthfulness, and earnest struggle for the right.
In addition, during the 1850s Smith gained prominence with African-American readers and abolitionist readers of all ethnicities for his regularly published (often weekly) columns in Frederick Douglass Paper. Smith's commentaries on African-American culture, local and national politics, and literature and styles of dress made him one of the earliest Black public intellectuals to gain popularity in the U.S.
In 1859, Smith published an article using scientific findings and analysis to refute the former president Thomas Jefferson's theories of race, as expressed in his well-known Notes on the State of Virginia (1785). Dr. Vanessa Northington Gamble, a medical doctor and historian at George Washington University, in 2010 noted, "As early as 1859, Dr. McCune Smith said that race was not biological but was a social category." He commented on the positive ways that ethnic Africans would influence US culture and society, in music, dance, food, and other elements. His collected essays, speeches and letters have been published as The Works of James McCune Smith: Black Intellectual and Abolitionist (2006), edited by John Stauffer.
In 1863 Smith was appointed as professor of anthropology at Wilberforce College, Ohio. It was founded in a collaboration between the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME Church) and the Methodist Church of Cincinnati as a college for students of color before the American Civil War. By 1860, it had numerous mixed-race students from the South, whose tuition was paid by their wealthy white planter fathers. The war caused the withdrawal of most southern students, threatening survival of the school. In 1863 the college was purchased by the AME Church and established as the first African American-owned and operated college in the United States.
At the time, Smith was too ill to take the position. He died two years later on November 17, 1865 from congestive heart failure on Long Island at the age of 52. This was nineteen days before ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, which abolished slavery throughout the country. He was buried at Cypress Hills Cemetery in Brooklyn. Smith was survived by his widow, Malvina, and five children.
- Smith, James McCune (1841). A Lecture on the Haytien Revolutions. New York: D. Fanshaw. OCLC 16788188.
- Smith, James McCune (1843). The Destiny of the People of Color. New York: s.n. OCLC 27872624.
- Smith, James McCune (1846). A Dissertation on the Influence of Climate on Longevity. Office of Merchants' Magazine. New York. OCLC 34227767.
- Smith, James McCune (1860). Ira Aldridge. New York: Arno Press; The New York Times. OCLC 35129946.
- Smith, James McCune (2006). Stauffer, John (ed.). The Works of James McCune Smith: Black Intellectual and Abolitionist. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-530961-8.
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- "The Life and Times of Dr. James McCune Smith: Family". Dr. James McCune Smith, New York City Alliance for the Arts. 2008. Archived from the original on July 9, 2012. Retrieved May 2, 2012. Note: In the 1850 census, Smith's household included Lavinia Smith, age 67; and three other older women. In the 1860 census, still part of Smith's household, she listed her birthplace as South Carolina.
- Morgan, Thomas M (July 2003). "The education and medical practice of Dr. James McCune Smith (1813-1865), first black American to hold a medical degree". Journal of the National Medical Association. 95 (7): 603–14. PMC 2594637. PMID 12911258. Note: Glasgow University's matriculation album for 1832 lists Smith as "the first natural son of Samuel, merchant, New York" (translated from Latin)
- Kharem (2009), p. 12
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- Year: 1860; Census Place: New York Ward 5 District 2, New York, New York; Roll: M653_790; Page: 585; Image: 429; Family History Library Film: 803790, online at Ancestry.com (subscription required)
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- "John M. Smith," Year: 1900; Census Place: Brooklyn Ward 22, Kings, New York; Roll: 1059; Page: 17B; Enumeration District: 350; FHL microfilm: 1241059 (subscription required)
- New York State Census, 1865 Kings Brooklyn, Ward 13 https://www.familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:S3HT-DHLW-YLD?i=192&cc=1491284
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|Wikiquote has quotations related to: James McCune Smith|
- "Intelligence Personified, James McCune Smith", African American Registry
- "The African Free School Collection". New-York Historical Society.
- James McCune Smith. "Toussaint Louverture and the Haitian Revolutions". Louverture Project. - 1841 Speech
- Thomas M. Morgan, "The education and medical practice of Dr. James McCune Smith (1813-1865), first black American to hold a medical degree", Journal of the National Medical Association. 2003 Jul; 95(7):603-14, full text.
- Kevin O'Reilly, "New recognition for first black U.S. doctor with medical degree", American Medical News, November 8, 2010
- "James M. Smith Community School".