James McCune Smith was born free in 1813 in New York City, New York; his mother, Lavinia Smith, was a slave from South Carolina who had been brought to New York by her master. New York state had passed gradual abolition in 1799; children of slave mothers were born free, but had to serve an indenture until early adulthood. New York finally abolished all slavery in 1826. His mother achieved her freedom later in life; she said she was a "self-emancipated woman."
|African Free School (AFS) #2, New York City|
|Peter Williams, Jr.|
Upon graduation, Smith applied to Columbia University and Geneva Medical College in New York State, but was denied admission due to racial discrimination.
He was 48 years old when the Civil War began; he would die five months after it ended.
|University of Glasgow|
Through abolitionist connections, he was welcomed there by members of the London Agency Anti-Slavery Society. Smith enjoyed the relative racial tolerance in Scotland and England, which officially abolished slavery in 1833. While in Scotland, Smith joined the Glasgow Emancipation Society and met people in the Scottish and English abolitionist movement.
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 also completed an internship in Paris. Dr. Smith then traveled home to New York, sailing on a second choice of a ship after being denied passage on the Canonicus because of his race.
Upon his return to New York City in 1837 with his degrees, Smith 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 established his practice in Lower Manhattan in general surgery and medicine, treating both black and white patients. He also 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. His friends and activists gathered in the back room of the pharmacy to discuss issues related to their work in abolitionism.
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.
|Thanksgiving Dinner at the Colored Orphans Asylum|
|Colored Orphans Asylum|
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 there were many new immigrants competing for work.
In the 1850 census, the Smith household included four older women: Lavinia Smith, age 67 (his mother); Sarah Williams, 57; Amelia Jones, 47; and Mary Hewlitt, 53, who were likely relatives or friends. Each member of the household was classified as mullato. 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.
|Routes of the Underground Railroad|
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 and 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.
Smith and Henry Highland Garnet, lifelong friends, imagined a bright future for black Americans. Garnet, born into slavery, stressed emancipation as a spiritual process — lifting the soul into a full recognition of its power to do good. McCune Smith, born free, argued that in overcoming their oppressors black Americans would "purify the Republic" and become the great artists, writers, orators, and voices of conscience in the United States. Smith and Garnet split over African colonization in 1859-61 but reconciled by the end of the Civil War.
|Henry Highland Garnet|
|My Bondage, My Freedom, with introduction by Smith|
|The Riots of New York: The Mob Lynching a Negro|
|Rioters Burning the Colored Orphans Asylum|
|New York Riots, 1863|
He died two years after the riots on November 17, 1865 of congestive heart failure on Long Island, New York. He was 52 years old. He died five months after the end of the Civil war and nineteen days before ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, which abolished slavery throughout the country.
|Cypress Hills Cemetery, Brooklyn, New York|
Smith's children did not promote their father's legacy. Apparently members of the family all lived as white persons afterward, and were not involved with the African-American community.
Greta Blau of New Haven, Connecticut, came across her family connection while taking a course in the history of blacks in New York City. It was there that she came across the name James McCune Smith, which rang a bell. The name was inscribed in a family Bible belonging to her grandmother, Antoinette Martignoni. Blau concluded that after Smith's death, his surviving children must have passed as white, and their children and grandchildren never knew they had a black forbear, let alone such an illustrious one.
"Right now I feel so connected in a new way, to actually be here," said Martignoni, the 91-year-old great-granddaughter of James McCune Smith. "I take a deep breath, and I thank God, I really do. I am so glad to have lived this long."
|Martignoni and others at Tombstone Dedication in September 2010|
|Greta Blau and Joanne Edey-Rhodes|
The tombstone dedication was followed by a panel discussion at St. Philip's Episcopal Church in Harlem. Smith had been an active member of the church. The Rev. Craig Townsend, an Episcopal priest and scholar, said Smith's faith in God bolstered his belief that human beings are equal.
"After a year of ailment, at times painful and distressing, always obscure, and which she bore with childlike patience, it pleased God to take her home to the Company of Cherubs who continually do Praise Him," Smith wrote.