In Carla L. Peterson’s “Black Gotham: A Family History of African-Americans in Nineteenth Century New York City,” one of the longest citations in the index is given to Peter Guignon, her great-great-grandfather. The next longest belongs to Dr. James McCune Smith, one of the most distinguished men, Black or white, in the history of New York City. “Born into poverty,” Peterson wrote, “Smith was, in his own words, ‘the son of self-emancipated bond-woman’ and owed his ‘liberty to the Emancipation Act of the state of New York.’”
More specifically, he was born April 18, 1813, and according to Peterson, Smith’s father was a white merchant named Samuel Smith. Coming of age in the city’s Lower East Side, he attended Mulberry Street School, where he excelled as a student. Mulberry School was part of the African Free School system that would pave the way for the city’s public school system.
One sign of promise occurred when, at 11 years of age, he was chosen as class speaker when the school was visited by Lafayette, the famed Revolutionary War hero.
Like so many talented African-Americans of his day, including the great thespian Ira Aldridge, who attended the African Free School six years before, Smith had to go abroad to continue his academic career. By 1835, he had earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of Glasgow in Scotland. A year later, he received his master’s degree, and in 1837, his medical degree.
He began practicing medicine in the clinics in Paris but soon returned to New York City, where he opened a pharmacy on West Broadway, the first owned by an African-American in the country.
When he wasn’t filling prescriptions, Smith was functioning most successfully as a doctor and surgeon, which he would do almost without interruption until his death in 1865. For a score of years, he served on the medical staff at the Free Negro Orphan Asylum in New York City, not only treating the children’s illnesses but taking them on country trips. All of this came to an end when the asylum was burned down during the Draft Riots of 1863.
Given his prominence in the city, when African-Americans received 120,000 acres of land in the state from a rich donor, Smith and two ministers were chosen to select the 2,000 recipients. White abolitionist Gerrit Smith was the spokesperson for the plan, which, as Peterson wrote, was a settlement that would resemble a mythical Timbuctoo in West Africa. But the plan never really gained much traction after some 20 families were selected and Smith turned down an opportunity to live there. In a letter to Gerrit Smith, he admitted that he “would gladly exchange this bustling anxious life for the repose of that majestic country … but the country is too sparse to give support to a physician.”
Throughout his adult life, Smith was deeply involved in the politics of the city and the nation. When there was a heated debate around the question of colonization and whether Blacks should leave America and return to Africa, he sided with those who believed African-Americans had invested too much in the building of the country to leave it. He was among a number of notable Blacks who met in Albany in 1852 and drafted a statement urging the New York Legislature to reject any measure to send Blacks back to Africa.
Never one to cower in the face of oppression or bigotry, he expressed his outrage even against the formidable John C. Calhoun, a congressman from South Carolina noted for his racist ideology. When Calhoun declared that Black people were prone to insanity, Smith challenged the notion, suggesting that Calhoun was absolutely wrong.
Smith’s activism was widely known, and he was in contact with all of the outstanding freedom fighters, including Frederick Douglass and John Brown. There are several letters showing Smith’s advice to Brown as he planned his slave uprising; of course, he stopped short of joining the rebel in his ill-fated venture.
Meanwhile, Smith devoted himself to working with the leaders of the Underground Railroad, most notably David Ruggles. He was also a prolific writer and journalist, contributing articles to several publications and at one time the editor of the Colored American.
His scholarly essays and articles covered a broad expanse of topics, but slavery was a paramount concern. Among the most popular were “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’Ouverture,” 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.
Exemplary of his writing is the tribute he wrote and delivered for his good friend and colleague Henry Highland Garnet. Here he recounts Garnet’s bravery in Canaan, N.H., at an academy where he had gone to teach. “In August of the same year (1835) a mob assembled in Canaan, and with the aid of ninety-five yoke of oxen and two days’ hard labor, finally succeeded in removing the Academy from its site and afterwards they destroyed it by fire. The same mob surrounded the house of Mr. [George] Kimball and fired shot into the room occupied by Garnet: to add to the mean atrocity of the act, he was at that time in consequence of increasing lameness, obliged to use a crutch in walking, and was confined to his room by a fever. But neither sickness, nor infirmity, nor the howling of the mob could subdue his fiery spirit; he spent most of the day in casting bullets in anticipation of the attack, and when the mob finally came, he replied to their fire with a double-barreled shot-gun, blazing from his window, and soon drove the cowards away.”
After the torching of the Colored Orphan Asylum, he was offered a position to teach anthropology at Wilberforce University in Ohio, but he had to turn it down because of his failing health.
Smith died of heart disease at his Long Island home Nov. 17, 1865.
As part of his enduring legacy, P.S. 200 in Harlem is named after him.