Monday, April 29, 2013

James McCune Smith, born April 18, 1813

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." 

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.  James grew up with his mother. As an adult, James Smith alluded to other white ancestry in his mother's family, saying he had kin in the South, some of whom were slaveholders and others slaves.

African Free School (AFS) #2, New York City
Smith attended the African Free School (AFS) #2 on Mulberry Street in Manhattan, where he was described as an "exceptionally bright student".  In the course of his studies, Smith was tutored by Reverend 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. Williams founded St. Philip's African Church in 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
Reverend 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.  He sailed in 1832, at the age of 21.  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. 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 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.  In 1840 he 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 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 United States.

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.

Gerrit Smith
Smith was a member of the American Anti-Slavery Society, and worked effectively with both black and white abolitionists.  He maintained a friendship and correspondence with Gerrit Smith that spanned the years from 1846-1865.

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.
At Glasgow, Smith had been 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 free blacks or white urban laborers. To do this, he drew up statistical tables of data from the census.

After 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 seven children.  Five survived to adulthood: James, Maud, Donald, John and Guy. Their sons married white spouses; Maud never married.

When John Calhoun, then Secretary of State Senator from South Carolina, claimed that freedom was bad for blacks, and that the 1840 United State 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.

Thanksgiving Dinner at the Colored Orphans Asylum
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. 

Colored Orphans Asylum
The asylum had been 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. 

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.

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.

Routes of the Underground Railroad
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 Frederick 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.  
Frederick Douglass
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' newspaper, 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 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
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 also joined the New York Historical Society.  

Smith wrote an introduction to Frederick Douglass' 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.  

My Bondage, My Freedom, with introduction by Smith
In 1859, he published an article using scientific findings and analysis to refute former president Thomas Jefferson's theories of race, as expressed in his well-known Notes on the State of Virginia (1785).

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. 

In July 1862, Smith presented the trustees of the orphan asylum with 5,000 acres provided by his friend Gerrit Smith. The land was to be held in trust and later sold for benefit of the orphans.

The Riots of New York: The Mob Lynching a Negro
In July 1863, during the three-day New York Draft Riots, in which most participants were ethnic Irish, rioters attacked and burned down the orphan asylum. 

Rioters Burning the Colored Orphans 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. 

New York Riots, 1863
After the riots, Smith moved his family and business out of Manhattan, as did other prominent blacks.  Numerous buildings had been destroyed in their old neighborhoods, and estimates were that 100 blacks were killed in the rioting. No longer feeling safe in the lower Fourth Ward, the Smiths moved to Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

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. 

He was buried at an unmarked grave in Cypress Hills Cemetery, in Brooklyn. 

Cypress Hills Cemetery, Brooklyn, New York
Smith was survived by his widow, Malvina, and five children. In the 1870 census, five years after Smith's death, Malvina and her four children were living in Ward 15, Brooklyn. All were listed as white. The Smith children still at home were Maud, 15; Donald, 12; John, 10; and Guy, 8; all were attending school.

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.

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.

Antoinette Martignoni and Greta Blau with Family Bible
"I never, ever would have thought that I had a black ancestor," Blau said.  She added, "We're all really happy. ... He was a really amazing person in so many ways."

Blau contacted all the Smith descendants she could find and invited them to join her for a ceremony dedicating a tombstone at Smith's grave.  In September 2010, 11 descendents of Smith gathered at his grave in Brooklyn.

"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
Joanne Edey-Rhodes, the professor whose course led Blau to discover her ancestor, said Blau had written about Smith in her paper for the course.  "She was writing about this person and didn't realize that that was her very own ancestor," Edey-Rhodes said.

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. 

Townsend passed out copies of an 1850 letter Smith had written to a friend after the death of his 5-year-old daughter.

"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.

No comments:

Post a Comment