The first black doctor in America, James McCune Smith, set the bar high for the many who came after him. Not only was he the first black man to receive a medical degree in America but he was also a lifelong abolitionist, owned the first black-owned pharmacy, and the first black man to have articles published in medical journals. He did things with his life that would guarantee that his accomplishments would not be forgotten but, in a strange twist of the fate, they were, for over 100 years. James McCune Smith was born on April 18, 1813. Born to a slave who had bought her own freedom and declared herself a “self-emancipated woman”, it seemed that James had tenacity in his blood. In his youth, he attended the African Free School in Manhattan where he was described as an “exceptionally bright student”.
In an effort to stoke the fires of James’ brilliance, he was given special attention by Reverand Peter Williams Jr., a graduate of the school and the 2nd black man to be ordained as a priest in American history. At the end of his education at the African Free School, James applied to two of the best medical colleges in the state, Colombia University, and Genova Medical College. Despite his brilliance, James was denied admission. No one was more disappointed in this outcome than James’ tutor, Rev. Williams Jr. Determined to not let discrimination stand in the way of James’ future, he found a medical college that would admit students of black ancestry: The University of Glasgow in Scotland.
Rev. Williams Jr. and several hopeful benefactors raised the money for James’ voyage to Scotland and funds for his tuition. Living and learning in Europe fueled the fires of the abolitionist inside James. Close connections gave him a membership to the London Agency Anti-Slavery Society and the racial tolerance of London and Scotland gave him a vision for the future for black America. James didn’t waste Rev. Williams Jr.
‘s time. He consistently made top marks and after an internship in Paris, he graduated at the top of his class with a medical degree in 1837. On his return from Scotland James was regarded by the black community as a hero. At a gathering celebrating his return, he said: “I have striven to obtain education, at every sacrifice and every hazard, and to apply such education to the good of our common country.” Again, James was a man of his word. During his 25 year career as a doctor, he opened a practice in lower Manhattan, opened the first black-owned pharmacy (with a back room for abolitionist meetings), and, became the only doctor at the Colored Orphan Asylum.
Through his actions and declarations, it was obvious that James found no shame in his black heritage. However, as the child of a white father and a black mother, at many times in his life, he saw that being white had its benefits. That unfortunately true sentiment was the cause of his black heritage almost being erased from history. James married a woman of similarly mixed race in the 1840s. The five children she bore were far more white passing than their parents and when it came time for those children to make families of their own, they took advantage of it. Each of his four sons married white spouses and as generations passed, slowly but surely, the blackness of the Smith family was forgotten. Up until the 20th century, at least. Historians traced the lineage of James McCune Smith and discovered the truth of his heritage.
His descendants, now completely white, were the last to know of their connection to the pioneering doctor and of their black heritage. His great-great-great granddaughter happened to be taking a history class and recognized his name as one that had been written in a generations-old family bible. With this discovery, the legacy of James McCune Smith was alive once more. In 2010, his descendants commissioned an updated tombstone to honor his memory.