NEW YORK — He couldn’t go to medical school in New York, so James McCune Smith went to Scotland for his degree and returned home to treat the city’s poor. The degree he earned in 1837 made him the nation’s first professionally trained African-American doctor. He set up a medical practice in lower Manhattan and became the resident physician at an orphanage. Celebrated during his lifetime as a teacher, writer and anti-slavery leader, Smith fell into obscurity after his death in 1865 and was buried in an unmarked grave.
On Sunday, descendants who only recently learned they had a black ancestor, will honor Smith at his Brooklyn grave. It will be marked with a new tombstone. “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,” said John Stauffer, a professor of African-American studies at Harvard University who has written about Smith and edited a collection of his works. The story of why Smith was nearly overlooked by history and buried in an unmarked grave is in part due to the centuries-old practice of light-skinned blacks “passing” as white to escape racial prejudice.
Smith’s mother had been a slave; his father was white. Three of his children lived to adulthood, and they all apparently passed as white, scholars say. Smith’s great-great-great-granddaughter, Greta Blau of New Haven, Conn., said that none of his descendants was told that they had a black ancestor, let alone such an accomplished one. Blau 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 consulted with Stauffer, and they did some research and determined that the James McCune Smith who was known as America’s first black doctor was indeed her forebear. “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.” Smith lived and died during a time in America when little attention was given to the achievements of black people. Smith’s children refused to promote their father’s legacy and even shunned their African-American heritage. While hardly a household name, Smith was well known enough that a public school in Harlem was named after him. Danny Glover portrayed him in a video produced by the New York Historical Society.
Smith also was the first African-American to publish scholarly studies in peer-reviewed medical journals, Stauffer said. He also wrote essays countering theories of black racial inferiority that had currency then. He was a friend and associate of famed abolitionist Frederick Douglass, and he wrote the introduction to Douglass’ “My Bondage and My Freedom.” Smith set up a medical practice and a pharmacy in what is now Manhattan’s Tribeca neighborhood. He also was the resident physician at the Colored Orphan Asylum on Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street. The orphanage burned to the ground in 1863 amid riots by white working-class immigrants over the Civil War draft. Smith and other prominent African-Americans fled to Brooklyn, then a separate city.
The asylum was re-established at a new location and survives today; it’s called Harlem Dowling. Smith championed educational opportunities as a founding member of the New York Society for Promotion of Education of Colored Children. He also helped organize New York’s resistance to the Fugitive Slave act of 1850, which decreed that slaves who escaped to the North be returned to their owners. Stauffer said Smith’s reputation suffers in comparison to Douglass’ because he was not a fiery speaker like Douglass. “He didn’t have the public persona,” Stauffer said. “He preferred writing.”
Carla Peterson, a professor of English at the University of Maryland who has written about Smith in a forthcoming book, “Black Gotham: An African American Family History,” said Smith did not share Douglass’ dramatic history of escape from slavery. “He did not live the life of a slave,” Peterson said. “He could not write a slave narrative.” But she said Smith was “incredibly significant.” “He’s remarkable for what he could do for his community,” she said.
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