James McCune Smith was an Black American physician, apothecary, abolitionist, and author.
James M. Smith was born free in New York City on April 18, 1813, the son of an former slave mother, Lavinia Smith (1783 – 1860 or 1870). Lavinia achieved her freedom before James was born. His father was believed to be a white merchant, and likely his mother reformer master Samuel Smith.
Smith education began at the African Free School #2, in Manhattan, New York. Smith was described as an “exceptionally bright student”. Upon graduating from the African Free School, Smith applied to Columbia University and Geneva Medical College in New York State, but was denied admission due to racial discrimination. Prominent Black Americans living in New York City, encouraged Smith to attend the University of Glasgow, in Scotland. Benefactors of the African Free School provided Smith with money for his trip overseas and education. Smith graduated from Glasgow at top of his class. He obtained a bachelor’s degree in 1835, his master’s in 1836, and his medical degree 1837. Smith also completed his medical internship in Paris.
Dr. Smith returned to the United States in 1837, and settled in New York City. Upon his return he was greeted as a hero by the Black community. At a gathering for Dr. Smith, he said “I have striven to obtain education, at every sacrifice and every hazard, and to apply to apply such education to the good of our country”. Dr. Smith became the first black American to hold a medical degree and the first Black American to be an University trained physician.
In 1840, Dr. Smith wrote the first case report by a black doctor, which was read at a meeting of the New York Medical and Surgical Society. The Board members acknowledge Dr. Smith was well qualified to become a member, but was not admit because of racial discrimination. Soon after, Dr. Smith published an article in the New York Journal of Medicine, the first by a black doctor in the United States. He drew from his medical training to discredit popular ideas about differences among the races. 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.
In the Mid 1840’s, Dr. Smith married Malvain Barnet (1825 -), a free black woman who graduated from Rutgers Female Institute. Together the couple had eleven children, in which only five survived to adulthood. Dr. Smith established his own practice in Lower Manhattan in General Surgery and Medicine, treating both black and white patients. He also started a evening school teaching children. Dr. Smith established the first black-owned and operated pharmacy in the United States, located at 93 West Broadway (near Foley Square today). He used his the back room to his pharmacy , for his friends and activist to gather and discuss black issues.
In 1846, Dr. Smith was hired at the Colored Orphan Asylum, at the only doctor and medical director, in Manhattan New York. The orphanage was ran by white female Quakers. Dr. Smith job at the orphanage was to provide vaccination to the children and for them while they were ill.
In 1850, Dr. Smith was a member of the Committee of Thirteen. He 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 escape slaves. Dr. Smith committee aided fugitive slaves to escape capture and helped connect them to people of the Underground Railroad and other escape routes. During the mid 1850’s, worked with Frederick Douglass (born Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey, February 1818 – February 20, 1895), to establish the National Council of Colored People, one of the first permanent black national organizations. At a convention in Rochester, New York, Dr. Smith and Douglass emphasized the importance of education for Black Americans and urged the founding of more schools for black youth. Dr. Smith work for the advancement of blacks did not stop there. He also was a prominent leader in the battle for Civil Rights for Northern Blacks minority. Dr. Smith joined James William Charles Pennington (1807–1870), and Thomas L. Jennings (1791 – 1856), in establishing the Legal Rights Association (LRA), in New York City. The LRA waged a nearly ten-year campaign against segregated public transportation in New York.
Dr. Smith opposed the emigration of free Black Americans to other countries, he 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. Dr. Smith contributed money to revive the Weekly Anglo-African in 1861, as an anti-emigrations newspaper. His own writings were important for refuting commonly held racist assumptions of the time. By 1860, Dr. 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 ($665,719.94 today).
In July 1863, during the three-day New York Draft Riot, in which most participants were ethnic Irish, rioters attacked and burned down the Colored Orphan Asylum. The children were saved by the staff and Union troops in the city. After the riots, Smith moved his family and business out of Manhattan, as did other prominent blacks. Numerous buildings were 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, Dr. Smith moved his family to Williamsburg, Brooklyn. In the 1870, census Dr. Smith and his family were listed as white. During his practice of 25 years, Dr. Smith was also the first black to have articles published in American Medical Journals, but he was never admitted to the American Medical Association or local ones. In 1863 Smith was appointed as professor of anthropology at Wilberforce College, in Ohio. It was founded in a collaboration between the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME Church), and the Methodist Church of Cincinnati as a college for students of color before the American Civil War.
At the time, Dr. Smith was too ill to take the position. Dr. James McCune Smith died two years later on November 17, 1865 of congestive heart failure in Long Island, New York at the age of 52. This was nineteen days before ratification of the Thirteen Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, which abolished slavery throughout the country. He was buried at Cypress Hills Cemetery, in Brooklyn.