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Nation's first Black physician gets new headstone

Jasmin K. Williams | 4/12/2011, 5:23 p.m.

The cloudy Sunday morning of September 26 saw an unusual gathering at Brooklyn's Cypress Hill Cemetery. A group of whites were gathered at an African-American burial plot to dedicate a new headstone. Interred in Section 2, Lot 130 are the remains of Dr. James McCune Smith, the nation's first Black physician and his family. But this was not a group of onlookers coming to pay homage to the man who became the nation's first African-American physician. This was a family affair. These were Dr. Smith's descendents, brought together by the discovery of their lineage and each other.

It started six years ago when Greta Blau of New Haven, Connecticut, discovered the name James McCune Smith in her grandmother's family Bible. Blau recognized the name from a Black history course she had taken, but she did not believe that they could actually be related. He was Black and she is white. She began researching Smith and, after speaking with Harvard professor John Stauffer and accessing cemetery records, discovered that this pioneering physician and activist was indeed her great-great-great grandfather.

"I first learned about him when I took a course called 'The History of Blacks In New York City' taught at Hunter College by professor Joanne Edey-Rhodes. I did a paper on the Colored Orphans Asylum. He was the doctor there," Blau told the Amsterdam News.

"In 2004, I discovered that he was my ancestor. I was looking in my grandmother's family Bible and saw his name as the father of her grandfather. I recognized the name, but it had been eight years since I had done that report," she said.

"I went home and Googled it, and it was him. I looked at the census records, got the cemetery records that had the deeds and names, talked to John Stauffer and pieced everything together. I still don't believe it sometimes, but the facts are all there," Blau said.

"He was not buried in an unmarked grave. He had a wife and kids. They had money. They had the plot. It's just that there was no headstone here 140 years later. I'm sure he had a headstone when he was buried. There was a limestone, which was face down. Limestone is very brittle. Patrick Russo from the cemetery looked at it and said that there was nothing legible on it.

"My grandmother's grandfather was John Murray, Smith's brother. But he was not buried here. My grandmother's family was Irish Catholic British with no clue at all," Blau said.

At 91 years of age, Blau's grandmother, Antoinette Martignoni, is Smith's oldest known living descendent.

"The Bible had gone down from mother to mother to mother," Martignoni said. "All we had were my grandfather, Guy Roman Smith's parents, and one of his parents was James McCune Smith, and, for years, we knew nothing until she [Blau] decided to take a Black history course," she said.

" I feel breathless. I felt that the world had opened up and was wider than I thought, deeper than I thought. It's a return to a connection, a reason to be and do the best that I can, to follow in the example that he set of service to the world, and knowing that guy's genes are in my genes, I am happy," Martignoni said.