Smith, James McCune

views updated May 29 2018

Smith, James McCune 1813–1865

James McCune Smith was born in New York City on April 18, 1813, to an enslaved mother. Both his father, who worked as a merchant, and his mother were former slaves. He went on to become one of the most important, yet historically neglected, figures in antebellum African-American history. As a physician, scientist, essayist, and spokesman on behalf of free blacks, he widely influenced the African-American movement to abolish slavery and create equality for free people of African descent.

Smith was educated at the African Free School in New York City, an institution founded by white abolitionists in the post-Revolutionary period that schooled a host of young African-American men who later became important public figures, including Henry Highland Garnet, Samuel Ringgold Ward, Alexander Crummell, and Ira Aldridge. The Free School offered a liberal arts education designed to demonstrate African Americans’ intellectual equality with whites. In 1832, after being denied admission into several American colleges, Smith enrolled at the University of Glasgow in Scotland, where he eventually earned a bachelor of arts, a master’s, and a medical degree. The Glasgow Emancipation Society—one of many institutions in Great Britain that reflected popular antislavery sentiment— helped ponsor his education and served as a forum for his abolitionist activities while in college.

In 1837, after completing his studies in Paris, Smith returned to the United States. By virtue of his education and literary abilities, he quickly became an exceptional figure in New York’s African-American community. He opened a pharmacy on West Broadway and ran a racially integrated medical practice, the first in the United States run by a university-trained black physician. The Colored Orphans Asylum, which after the Free School was the most important benevolent institution for African Americans in New York, benefited from his work there as a physician starting in the 1840s. In addition, he participated in many efforts to build institutions among African Americans, and he played a leading role in the establishment of literary and educational societies, mutual relief organizations, and antislavery agencies. In the early 1850s he helped found the National Council of Colored People, one of the pioneer national efforts to organize African Americans, and in the mid-1850s he helped found the Party of Radical Political Abolitionists.

Smith’sintellectual legacy stems from his work as an essayist, thinker, and activist. His notable publications included A Lecture on the Haytian Revolution (1841), The Destiny of the People of Color (1843), and introductions to Frederick Douglass’s second autobiography (My Bondage and My Freedom [1855]) and Henry Highland Garnet’s Memorial Discourse (1865). He also published several essays reflective of his scientific training, writing on topics such as phrenology, longevity, climate, and race. He enjoyed editorial stints at three black newspapers—— The Colored American, The Northern Star and Freemen’s Advocate, and Douglass’ Monthly ——and contributed regularly to the black press, penning several important essays for The Anglo-African Magazine and a column for Frederick Douglass’ Paper.

Smith’s thinking reflected the diversity of his interests and the breadth of his training. He took strong stands against black migration to another country, for black education of all sorts, and against racial theories that declared all people of African descent a separate and inferior part of creation. Twin themes, often held in delicate tension, dominated his approach to racial activism. On the one hand, he strongly advocated a program of self-help and racial uplift that promised to “elevate” African Americans in the eyes of whites and roll back the tide of prejudice. On the other hand, he argued that only an independent black independent movement could vindicate the “manhood” of the race and achieve meaningful equality.

Smith’s self-help doctrine called for industrial and classical education for black youth to assist in inculcating positive habits and behaviors for racial uplift. He feared that the conduct of uneducated African Americans strengthened discrimination, believing that only their “moral excellence” could refute the pervasive prejudice besetting them. At times, Smith expressed frustration with the pace of the black non-elite’s self-elevation, calling those like himself “leaders of an invisible people.” Smith sought to shake off the patronage of white abolitionists and place African Americans at the center of their own freedom struggle. “The battle against caste and Slavery,” he wrote to his fellow African Americans, “is emphatically our battle; no one else can fight it for us, and with God’s help we must fight it ourselves.”

The tensions in Smith’s thinking—between the need to demonstrate blacks’ equality by accepted measures of civility versus the need for blacks to act independently on their own behalf—inhered in much antebellum black protest thought. Ultimately, though, the two impulses complemented each other rather than conflicted with each other. While black activists such as Smith did rely on standards of “respectability” and “civilization” derived from a world dominated by prejudiced whites, they did not see these virtues as exclusively “white,” but as universal, and they claimed them as their own. The path to equality lay not in subservience or the uncritical adoption of “white” standards, but in embracing and embodying those elements of the American creed that stressed manly independence and the capacity for self-governance. Only this route would change public perceptions of blacks, refute prejudice, and secure for African Americans a meaningful equality.

When the Civil War broke out, Smith saw, as did his colleagues, unparalleled opportunities for African Americans to enact this philosophy. Along with notables such as Frederick Douglass and Martin Delany, he lobbied relentlessly for the chance for African Americans to demonstrate their loyalty to liberty and their capacity for civic participation through military service. He believed that slavery would truly die not merely through the war alone, but through a thorough and equitable redistribution of Southern wealth into the hands of the four million freedpeople whose labor had been so long expropriated. Smith’s desire for a “quite Professorship”was granted in 1863 when Daniel Alexander Payne, a longtime colleague and a bishop in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, offered him a position at the abolitionist-sponsored Wilberforce College in Ohio. Unfortunately, he never lived to occupy the post. On November 17, 1865, he died of heart disease at the age of fifty-two.

SEE ALSO Antebellum Black Ethnology.


Blight, David W. 1985. “In Search of Learning, Liberty, and SelfDefinition: James McCune Smith and the Ordeal of the Antebellum Black Intellectual.” Afro-Americans in New York Life and History 9 (2): 7–26.

Dain, Bruce R. 2002. A Hideous Monster of the Mind: American Race Theory in the Early Republic. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Stauffer, John. 2001. The Black Hearts of Men: Radical Abolitionists and the Transformation of Race. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Patrick Rael

Smith, James McCune

views updated May 14 2018

Smith, James McCune

April 18, 1813
November 17, 1865

The physician and abolitionist James McCune Smith was born in New York City, the son of freed slaves. He received his early education at the African Free School, but even with an excellent academic record, he was effectively barred from American colleges because of his race. In 1832 he entered Glasgow University in Scotland, where heearned three academic degrees, including a doctorate in medicine. He also gained prominence in the Scottish antislavery movement as an officer of the Glasgow Emancipation Society.

Following a short internship in Paris, Smith returned to New York City in 1837 and established a medical practice and pharmacy. His distinction as the first degreeholding African-American physician assured him a prominent position in the city's black community. He was involved in several charitable and educational organizations, including the Philomathean Society and the Colored Orphan Asylum.

Smith's intellect, integrity, and lifelong commitment to abolitionism brought him state and national recognition. From the early 1840s, he provided leadership for the campaign to expand black voting rights in New York, although he initially refused to ally with any political party. In the 1850s, Smith continued his suffrage activity through the black state conventions. He eventually gravitated to the political antislavery views of the Radical Abolition Party, and he received the party's nomination for New York secretary of state in 1857.

As a member of the Committee of Thirteen, a group of local black leaders (not to be confused with the U.S. Senate committee formed in 1860 called the Committee of Thirteen) he helped organize local resistance to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. He was ranked among the steadfast opponents of the colonization and black emigration movements, affirming instead the struggle for the rights of American citizenship. Although committed to racial integration, he understood the practical and symbolic importance of separate black institutions, organizations, and initiatives. He called for an independent black press, and he worked with Frederick Douglass (18181895) in the early 1850s to establish the first permanent national African-American organizationthe National Council of the Colored People.

Smith provided intellectual direction as well as personal leadership for the black abolitionist movement. From his critiques of colonization and black emigration in the 1840s and 1850s to his analysis of Reconstruction in the 1860s, his commentary informed the debate on racial identity and the future of African Americans. Smith's published essays include two pamphlets, A Lecture on the Haytian Revolution (1841) and The Destiny of the People of Color (1843). He wrote several lengthy articles for Anglo-African Magazine in 1859, and also provided introductions to Frederick Douglass's second autobiography and Henry Highland Garnet's Memorial Discourse (1865). Although he never published his own journal, he assisted other black editors in all phases of newspaper publishing.

His letters to Frederick Douglass's paper often appeared under the pseudonym "Communipaw." He contributed as a correspondent or assistant editor to several other journals, including the Colored American, Northern Star and Freeman's Advocate, Douglass' Monthly, and Weekly Anglo-African. Smith's professional standing, erudition, and community involvement made his life a triumph over racism, and his name was frequently invoked by contemporaries as a benchmark for black intellect and achievement.

See also Abolition; African Free School; Douglass, Frederick


Ripley, C. Peter, et al., eds. The Black Abolitionist Papers. Vol. 3, The United States, 18301846. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991.

Ripley, C. Peter, et al., eds. The Black Abolitionist Papers. Vol. 4, The United States, 18471858. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991.

Stauffer, John. The Black Hearts of Men: Radical Abolitionists and the Transformation of Race. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2002.

michael f. hembree (1996)
Updated bibliography

James McCune Smith

views updated May 18 2018

James McCune Smith

James McCune Smith (1813-1865) was the first African American practice medicine in the United States. He is remembered for his successful work as a physician and for his scholarly writings against slavery.

James McCune Smith was born in New York City on April 18, 1813, the son of a slave and a self-emancipated woman, some sources say that his parents were of mixed race. He attended the African Free School in New York City. According to the Dictionary of American Biography, one day the famed Revolutionary War hero, Lafayette, spoke with the students and Smith, then aged 11, was chosen to speak on behalf of the class.

Schooled in Scotland

Smith continued his education at the University of Glasgow in Scotland, where he received his B.A. in 1835, his master's degree in 1836 and his medical degree in 1837. Smith was stocky in build, with a full face and attractive eyes. He was considered an eloquent speaker, according to Carter Woodson's Negro Makers of History. He was married and had five children.

Smith worked briefly as a doctor in clinics in Paris, France, but returned to New York City where he opened a pharmacy on West Broadway, the first ever to be operated by an African American. He worked as a physician and surgeon from 1838 until two years before his death in 1865. For 20 years, he served on the medical staff at the Free Negro Orphan Asylum in New York City.

In 1846, a man from Peterboro, New York, donated 120,000 acres in the state to be divided and given to African Americans living in New York City, as reported the Dictionary of American Biography. Smith and two members of the African American clergy were given the task of selecting the nearly 2,000 people to receive the land.

Worked Against Sending Blacks Back to Africa

While many people of the day supported the idea that blacks should be returned to Africa, Smith did not. He met with blacks in favor of the move in Albany, New York, in 1852 and persuaded them to adopt a statement urging the New York State Legislature to reject efforts to send black Americans back to Africa. Smith went as far as to challenge a member of Congress from South Carolina, John C. Calhoun, after Calhoun pronounced that African Americans were prone to insanity. Smith's response, showing the information to be false, was called, "The Influence of Climate upon Longevity."

Dedicated to doing all he could to support black emancipation and equality, Smith worked as a supporter of the Underground Railroad, a movement to help slaves escape to freedom. He contributed articles to a publication called Emancipator and edited another called Colored American.

Wrote Scholarly Articles on Slavery

Regarded as the most scholarly African American of his time, Smith's writings suggest his wide-ranging interests. His articles include "Abolition of Slavery and the Slave Trade in the French and British Colonies," 1838; "On the Haitian Revolutions, with a Sketch of the Character of Toussaint L'Overture," 1841; "Freedom and Slavery for Africans," 1844; "The Influence of Climate upon Longevity: With Special Reference to Life Insurance," 1846; "Civilization: Its Dependence on Physical Circumstances," 1859; "The German Invasion" (which dealt with immigration and how it affected life in America), 1859; "Citizenship" (a report on the Dred Scott decision), 1859; and "On the Fourteenth Query of Thomas Jefferson's Notes on Virginia" (which compared the anatomy of whites and blacks), 1859.

Smith was appointed to teach anthropology at Ohio's Wilberforce University in 1863, but his poor health kept him from taking the position. He died of heart disease at his Long Island, New York, home on November 17, 1865.

Further Reading

Kaufman, Martin, and Todd L. Savitt, editors, Dictionary of American Medical Biography, Greenwood Press, 1984, p. 693.

Woodson, Carter G., and Charles H. Wesley, Negro Makers of History, Associated Publishers, 6th ed., 1968, pp. 167-168.

Malone, Dumas, editor, Dictionary of American Biography, 1935, pp. 288-289. Blight, David W., In Search of Learning, Liberty, and Self Definition: James McCune Smith and the Ordeal of the Antebellum Black Intellectual, Afro-Americans in New York Life and History, Vol. 9(2), 1985, pp. 7-25.

Bulletin of the History of Medicine, Vol. 54(2), 1980, pp. 258-272. □

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