Dr. James McCune Smith

  • Dr. James McCune Smith was one of the most broadly accomplished black intellectuals and activists in antebellum America.  Born in New York on April 18, 1813, to Lavinia Smith, a woman born in Charleston, South Carolina, brought to New York in bondage, eventually earning her freedom. Officially James McCune Smith never knew his father, but university records indicate he was a merchant named Samuel Smith. 

    Smith received his primary education at the African Free School #2 on Lower Manhattan’s Mulberry Street, founded in 1787 by New York elites. Their aim was to prepare free and enslaved blacks “to the end that they may become good and useful citizens of the State” once the state granted complete emancipation. The school graduated a roster of young men who would fill the upper ranks of black intellectual and public life. Smith’s cohort alone included Ira Aldridge, the Shakespearean tragedian and first black actor to play Othello on the London stage; the abolitionist minister Henry Highland Garnet, the first African American to address Congress; Alexander Crummell, an early pan-Africanist minister and inspiration to W.E.B. DuBois; and brothers Charles and Patrick Reason, the first African American to teach at a predominantly white college and a renowned illustrator-engraver. 

    James McCune Smith stood out as the school’s star pupil even among this exceptional group. In 1824, at age 11, the school selected him to address the Marquis de Lafayette when the abolitionist Revolutionary War hero visited the school. Freed by New York’s Emancipation Act of 1827, and after graduating the African Free School at 15, with honors, the following year, Smith apprenticed to a blacksmith while continuing his studies with area ministers.

    When Columbia University and Geneva College (now Hobart and William Smith Colleges in New York) refused Smith admission because of his race, Smith’s benefactors raised funds for him to attend the University of Glasgow. At Glasgow, Smith was a charter member of the Glasgow Emancipation Society, joining just before Britain abolished slavery in 1833. He earned his bachelor's, master's,’ and medical degrees in five years, graduating at or near the top of his class. Then, he completed his residency in Paris. The African American press heralded his return to the U.S. in 1837.

    In New York, Smith established his medical practice at 55 West Broadway, where he also opened the first black-owned pharmacy in the United States. He saw both black and white patients, men and women. In 1840, Smith authored the first medical case report by an African American, titled, “Case of ptyalism with fatal termination,” but was denied the opportunity to present this paper on fatal tongue-swelling to the New York Medical and Surgical Society. 

    Smith served for 20 years as the medical director of the Colored Orphan Asylum, a position he assumed some years after accusing the asylum’s previous doctor of negligence for concluding that the deaths among his charges were due to the “peculiar constitution and condition of the colored race.” Smith made significant improvements in the medical care at the institution, containing outbreaks of contagious diseases by expanding the medical ward to allow for greater separation and isolation of sick children. He saw the institution as one of the best schools in the city for black children, providing for them what the African Free School supplied for him.

    Smith defied the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act, which required that citizens in free States aid in the recapture of persons fleeing bondage, as he met with other black activists in the back room of his pharmacy to arrange for the protection of runaways. In 1855, he co-founded the interracial Radical Abolitionist Party with Frederick Douglass, former Congressman Gerrit Smith, and John Brown. The focus of the organization was to ensure the freedom of enslaved people. 

    Smith died in November 1865 of congestive heart failure, living his final years in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. He and many black families fled Manhattan after the 1863 Draft Riots, were largely working-class Irish draft resisters assaulted and killed black New Yorkers and attacked charitable institutions associated with African-Americans and the war.

    Knowledge of Smith’s achievements as an African American might have endured had he published books. The essays that he wrote for periodicals were easier to forget. Whereas Frederick Douglass was the most photographed American of the 19th century, only one portrait of Smith exists.