Dr. James McCune Smith: The Nation’s First Black Doctor

(Photo credit: Columbia.edu)

When most people discuss heroes in Black history, many remember names like Frederick Douglas, Mary McCleoud Bethune, Benjamin Banneker and Sojurner Truth. While all those names are great, many forget the ones who paved the way in the medical field, even during slavery times. Dr. James McCune Smith is one of those.

Dr. McCune was one of the most broadly accomplished black intellectuals and activists in America. Born in New York on April 18, 1813, to a mother who purchased her own freedom and a father who may have been a freed slave or a white merchant, Smith attended the African Free School in New York City.

In 1824, the retired Revolutionary War hero General Lafayette returned to America for a tour of the nation. While in New York he visited the African Free School and out of all the students, he chose James to write and deliver the welcoming address. Smith was only 11 years old.

Upon graduation from the African Free School, James McCune Smith sought, but was denied admission to several American colleges. He then managed to raise money to attend the University of Glasgow in Scotland, where, after completing bachelor’s and masters’ degrees, he completed a medical degree in 1837. Thus he became, as far as can be determined, the first African American to be awarded a degree in medicine.

(The current location of Dr. Smith’s past residence in Glascow)

After completing a medical internship in Paris, France, he returned to New York City, where he opened a medical office and a pharmacy at 93 West Broadway that attracted interracial clientele. Here he served both white and black patients in the front of the pharmacy. In the back, he met with fellow activists and conspired to end slavery in the South, to win the vote for blacks in New York, and to educate black youth. Together with abolitionists such as Frederick Douglass, Gerrit Smith, and John Brown, he helped found the Radical Abolitionist Party. His pharmacy was a place where many escaping slaves found help. Smith wrote about medicine, science, education, racism, and literature and quickly emerged as a powerful anti-slavery and anti-racism organizer, orator, and writer.

Smith died in 1865 at the age of 52—five months after the end of the Civil War and less than three weeks before the 13th Amendment abolished slavery—keenly aware that African Americans still faced a long, hard struggle for equality. The New York draft riots of July 1863, in which mobs attacked not only the city’s wealthy but also black New Yorkers, had made that clear to him.

(AP Photo/Tina Fineberg)

After troops squashed the three-day draft riots, which were the culmination of frustration over the unfairness of new laws drafting men to fight in the Civil War, Dr. Smith moved his medical practice and his family from Manhattan to…