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.
The family is surprised and thrilled to have such a noted ancestor. Smith’s great-great-great grandson, Wayne Gerlitz, said, “I was very surprised, obviously. We knew nothing about him, but we are here to celebrate his life and remember him.”
Great-great-great granddaughter Elizabeth Strazar added, “It feels surreal in some way. I feel incredibly inspired. I’m a psychotherapist, and I feel very dedicated to help people. I feel very connected genetically now. It feels like he’s in me, and it’s very inspiring.”
Who was this man who became America’s first African-American physician?
James McCune Smith was born free in New York City in 1813, the child of an emancipated slave mother, Lavinia, and her owner. From an early age, he wanted to become a doctor, but was repeatedly denied entrance to medical school because of his race. Not to be deterred, Smith traveled to Scotland with the help of his pastor, Peter Williams Jr., a founder of St. Phillip’s Church, to attend the University of Glasgow Medical School, where he graduated at the top of his class. Smith was an active member of the church, which is now located in Harlem.
Once he returned to New York, Smith, now the country’s first trained African-American physician, opened an apothecary and medical practice on West Broadway in what is today TriBeCa. In 1842, he became the resident physician of the Colored Orphan Asylum, the nation’s first charitable organization and the first to accept Black children. For 20 years, Smith walked to the orphanage, located at 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue, from his home below Canal Street because New York’s segregated streetcars would not allow him to ride.
Smith and his family lived just around the corner from where the infamous Draft Riots took place in lower Manhattan. For three days in 1863, July 11-13, a mob of some 50,000, terrorized, beat and murdered innocent Black citizens. Black men were hung from street posts. Businesses were destroyed. The orphanage, where Smith had worked, was looted and burned to the ground. The Smiths fled to Williamsburg.
In addition to his accomplished career as a physician, Smith was a staunch anti-slavery advocate, joining the Antislavery Society and helping organize New York’s resistance to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. He promoted the education of Black children as a founding member of the New York Society for Promotions of Education of Colored Children. He contributed to the growth and development of the Black press. Smith worked with Frederick Douglass, and the two were friends until Smith’s death in 1865 at age 52.
Dr. Smith and his wife, Malvina, had 11 children of whom only five lived to maturity. Three descendents and their children have been located so far. Facebook was a big help, along with the discovery of the obituary of Ruth Smith Gerlitz, who was Smith’s great-great granddaughter. There are more descendents of out there who most likely were passing as white that the family would like to find.
“He had five children. He had a son named James Wesley Smith. We know that he lived in Newark and had two children, who, as far as I know, were passing as white, Blau said.