James McCune Smith – New York Physician, Intellectual, Abolitionist

James McCune Smith (1813–1865) was a prominent abolitionist and physician in New York, the first black American to hold a medical university degree, the first black American to own a pharmacy, and the black American to publish in medical journals. He was one of the most educated American’s (white and black) of his time, a public intellectual, and he wrote the introduction to Frederick Douglass’ – who called him “the single most important influence of his life” – second autobiography.

James McCune Smith was born on April, 18, 1813 in New York City into slavery. He grow up with his mother, a slave brought to New York from South Carolina. His father may have been a white merchant and possibly his mother’s owner, but nothing definitive is known about him. James attended the African Free School, where – at age 11 – he was chosen to write and deliver a speech to General Lafayette on his Farewell Tour through America in 1824. 1827 he gained his freedom when the Emancipation Law was enacted on July 4th.

After graduating from the African Free School in 1828, James was placed into a blacksmith apprenticeship, but he wanted to study medicine and applied to Columbia University and Geneva Medical College in New York State but was denied admission because of his race. However, he was admitted to the medical school of the University of Glasgow in Scotland, one of Europe’s leading programs and in fact better than the American schools that denied him. New York’s abolitionists, recognizing his potential, provided him with money for the trip and his education, and he took up his studies in 1832. He obtained a BA in 1835, a MA in 1836, and graduated at the top of his class with an MD in 1837. After his graduation, he was awarded a prestigious gynecological residency at Glasgow’s Lock hospital for women and completed an internship in Paris.

When James McCune Smith returned to New York City in 1838, he was not only the first African American with a medical degree, but one of the best-educated Americans of his time, not only fluent in French, Greek, and Latin but also knowledgeable of Hebrew, Italian, Spanish, and German. He established a practice for general surgery and medicine as well as the first African-American-owned pharmacy in lower Manhattan, serving both black and white patients and customers. In the early 1840s, he married Malvina Barnet, a free black woman who had graduated from the Rutgers Female Institute, the first seminary for the higher education of women in New York City. They had 11 children, but only 5 lived to adulthood.

In Glasgow McCune Smith had become involved and active in the abolitionist community, and back in New York he joined the American Anti-Slavery Society and established himself quickly as a leader of the anti-slavery movement not only in New York but on a national level. In 1839, he became editor of The Colored American, a New York weekly newspaper.

In 1846, Smith was appointed as the only physician of the Colored Orphan Asylum, founded in 1836 by Quaker philanthropists, where he worked there for almost 20 years, until 1863 when it was burnt down during the Draft Riots (all children could be rescued and survived). Sometimes he also boarded children temporarily in his home, and he opened a school to teach colored children in the evening. 1852, he received 5,000 acres of land from his friend Gerrit Smith, a white and very wealthy abolitionist, which was held in trust and later sold to benefit the orphans.

1850, after the Fugitive Slave Law had been passed, he was part of the Committee of Thirteen, aiding escaped slaves through the Underground Railroad to safety.

McCune Smith was a prolific writer and published countless articles on racism and abolitionism, among others he wrote several essays for Frederick Douglass’ Paper. In 1841 he published A Lecture on the Haytian Revolution, and 1843 The Destiny of the People of Color. Above all, he used his medical, scientific and statistical training to refute racist ideas about black inferiority and popular misconceptions about differences among the races. Smith considered race not a biological but a social category very early.

He was the first black American to have articles published in US medical journals and was quickly accepted by new scientific organizations. In 1853 he was invited to become a founding member of the New York Statistics Institute, in 1854 to become a member of the American Geographical Society, and he also joined the New York Historical Society. Yet, he was never admitted to the American Medical Association or to local medical associations.

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. Douglass valued McCune Smith’s rational approach and said that he was “the single most important influence on his life”. In 1855, James McCune Smith wrote the introduction to Frederick Douglass’ autobiography My Bondage and My Freedom. In 1865, he did the same for Henry Highland Garnet’s Memorial Discourse.

In 1863, Smith was appointed as professor of anthropology at Wilberforce College in Ohio, the first African American-owned and operated college in the United States, but was already too ill to start the position. He died on November 17, 1865, from congestive heart failure, at only 52 years.

Until recently, James McCune Smith’s role and his astonishing achievements as a black American were unknown to his descendants and mostly forgotten by historians. He and his wife were both of mixed descent and fair-skinned, thus classified mulatto in the 1850s census, but after he became economically successful and moved into a mostly white neighborhood, he and his family were classified as white in the 1860s census, and his children passed into white society. In the last 20th century, historians rediscovered his story and work, and his great-great-great-granddaughter found out who her ancestor was after taking a course at Hunter College on the history of blacks in New York and connecting him to an inscribing on a family Bible.

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