Some Notes on James McCune Smith (1813-1865), a complex character whose name is often invoked but whose work is not often discussed or appreciated.

A brief summary of what follows:
His neglect by literary scholars – parents and family – early education – acceptance in Glasgow – achievement of medical degrees and practical experience at the Glasgow Lock Hospital – scientific response to ‘scientific racism’ – emergence as a leading public intellectual and abolitionist – decrying of homeopathy as deadly quackery – the racism of the medical profession – being embraced by the Glasgow Emancipation Society – the importance of Glasgow in his developing political vision – his writing for Frederick Douglass’ Paper under the pen name of Communipaw – his elaboration of a theory of the social construction of race – disunity and oppression in USA – becoming the first black chair of a national political convention – Black nativism and Irish immigration – the whitewashing of history – his five children and their grandchildren being listed as white – the discovery of his descendants – the University’s class flight from the East End to the West End – the prejudice of Professor A C Bradley – McCune Smith’s status as the first experimental writer in the African American tradition

The official opening of the new James McCune Smith Learning Hub at the University of Glasgow, as part of a major campus redevelopment, marks an important point in the city’s history. The new Learning Hub named in his honour should make us eager to know more about McCune Smith, and there is still much to know and much to read. (1) As one recent commentator observes:

“McCune Smith was indeed an intellect with whom to be reckoned. Even though John Stauffer’s 2001 study, The Black Hearts of Men: Radical Abolitionists and the Transformation of Race, made an impassioned argument for the recovery of McCune Smith’s life and role in the abolitionist movement, in which he was a founding member of the Radical Abolition Party, he continues to be neglected by literary scholars. This neglect is particularly unfortunate given McCune Smith’s prominence in the nineteenth century: Douglass said that McCune Smith had more influence on his thinking than anyone else, and he was widely celebrated as the most highly educated African American of the nineteenth century before Du Bois.” (2)

James McCune Smith is truly a remarkable figure, a polymath and public intellectual celebrated as “the first university-trained black American physician” as well as an activist and world-changer. (3) Born into slavery on 18 April 1813 to a black mother, Lavenia Smith, (he described himself as “the son of a self-emancipated bond-woman”) and a white father, he was himself formally freed at the age of 14 in 1827 through New York’s Emancipation Act. McCune Smith later said of himself: “My mother is a mulatto, half white and half African – my father white; I am three-fourths white.” (4) According to one of his most recent biographers:

“We know Smith’s father’s name only from Glasgow University’s Matriculation Album for 1832, which lists ‘James M’Cune Smith’ as ‘filius natu maximus Samuelis, Mercatoris apud New York’ [first natural son of Samuel, merchant, New York]. This is the only known reference to Smith’s father”. (5)

Educated first at African Free School No. 2 on Mulberry Street in New York City, then attending evening classes while also working as a blacksmith’s apprentice, McCune Smith proved to be an excellent scholar, yet he could not get accepted to the colleges to which he applied in the States, including Columbia University. So “Smith’s abolitionist benefactors drew upon international connections in Glasgow, where the Glasgow Emancipation Society was active, and traditions were liberal with respect to university admissions”. (6)

Scotland beckoned, and McCune Smith sailed from New York to Liverpool on 16 August 1832 aboard a ship called the Caledonia. He was 19 years old. There had been other ships bearing the name Caledonia, including one that had carried would-be settlers to the ill-fated Darien Scheme in 1698, Scotland’s last-ditch attempt to get in on the act of Empire and the slave trade. McCune Smith was interested in the role of shipping in the history of slavery and on his trip to Liverpool and then Glasgow kept a travel journal recording his Atlantic crossing. It’s been said that McCune Smith’s “exploration of the ship and its tenuous relationship to the spatialized schemes of bondage and liberation in the Atlantic World began with the travel journal he kept during his voyage to Glasgow”. (7) In his journal McCune Smith laments the paradoxical nature of the American-built ship on which he sails, a vessel taking a free man from one slave-owning state to another:

“And that gathering something of the spirit of liberty from the ocean which she cleaves, and the chainless wind which wafts her along, she might appear in foreign ports a fit representative of a land of the free, instead of a beautiful but baneful object, like the fated box of Pandora, scattering abroad among the nations the malignant prejudice which is a canker and a curse to the soil, whence she sprung.” (8)

While in Liverpool en route to Glasgow McCune looked up an old schoolmate:

“Before leaving by the steamer Aliza Craig to Glasgow on September 15, 1832, Smith
called on Margaret Gill, the new, English wife of his former schoolmate and star Shakespearean actor Ira Aldridge, who was then performing on stage in London, and they strolled together in Liverpool’s garden cemetery, an interracial activity that would have been unthinkable in the United States at that time. Thus, it was in an atmosphere of relative racial tolerance that Smith began his five years in the United Kingdom”. (9)

The “Aliza Craig” is a misnomer for “Ailsa Craig”, a wooden paddle steamer launched in 1829. Aldridge, who was a senior pupil at McCune Smith’s school, was one of America’s foremost black actors. Among many distinguished roles he famously played the part of Macbeth , challenging audience perceptions and prejudices about Shakespeare, race, and performance. (10)

In choosing to study medicine McCune Smith was both leading the charge and following in the footsteps of some exceptional predecessors:

“The medical profession was an intellectual proving ground for 19th century blacks. Other African Americans had practiced medicine before and during Smith’s lifetime, but only a few received medical degrees in antebellum America, and none before Smith.” (11)

McCune Smith graduated BA in 1835, MA in 1836, and MD in 1837. Smith gained practical experience as a medical student at the Glasgow Lock Hospital for the treatment of venereal diseases. (12) Established in 1805 “for the treatment of unfortunate females […] many of them being very young girls”, the Lock was a notorious institution. (13)

McCune Smith had a brilliant mind and was a pioneer in every sense, a physician-scholar who became “the first African American to publish an article in a medical journal and the first black member of the American Geographical Society”. (14) But he was working at a time when medicine was still a developing field and at times got caught up in speculation. According to Thomas Morgan in his study of McCune Smith’s medical practice:

“Drawing on his experiences in the Lock Hospital, Glasgow, Smith had noted that discontinuation of opium tended to lead to return of regular menstrual cycles, which contradicted contemporary texts on the subject. Although the case series proved inconclusive, Smith speculated, ‘It may also be worth the inquiry, whether opium, in skillfully regulated doses, may not be used as a means to bear women safely through the critical disturbances which occur at the “change of life”.’ Like any of his 19th century peers, Smith was bound by the limits of available medical knowledge”. (15)

McCune Smith’s enlightened education meant that he was a steadfast opponent of so-called “scientific racism”, which drew on phrenology and respiratory biology to reinforce notions of white supremacy, and he had the medical expertise as well as the anti-racist credentials to demolish the arguments of apologists, which made him “an important figure in countering notions of innate black inferiority”. (16)

“McCune Smith looked and saw clearly how white scientists’ new approach to man was willfully blind to the specificity of individuals. He could see that a black person represented through the lens of race prejudice was not a human being made of flesh, bone and blood, but ‘a hideous monster of the mind, ugly beyond all physical portraying.’ This monster, created with words and images under the protective covering of science, was ‘so utterly and ineffably monstrous as to frighten reason from its throne, and justice from its balance, and mercy from its hallowed temple, and to blot out shame and probity, and the eternal sympathies of nature, so far as these things have presence in the breasts or being of American republicans!’”. (17)

Fellow abolitionist Frederick Douglass shared McCune Smith’s commitment to hybridity over and against claims to purity:

“Racial mixture did not weaken a people or society, he said, but strengthened it. This was the idea that Douglass borrowed from McCune Smith, an idea that greatly disturbed […] many others who maintained that miscegenation was a natural dead-end and a moral abomination. Douglass challenged the status quo when he declared that the black-white hybrid drew on the best of both races and strengthened the American people. Slavery, by contrast, hindered such progress. The United States was a great nation precisely because of its ‘composite character,’ but segregation threatened to hinder the natural development of its people. Douglass recognized ethnology for what it was, a proslavery argument. Common sense lost out because too many people had a stake in race inequality; too much money was being made off the backs of slaves. ‘By making the enslaved a character fit only for slavery,’ he told his young audience, ‘they excuse themselves for refusing to make the slave a freeman.” (18)

Even in his own era McCune Smith was recognised as a pioneering figure, both in abolitionist circles and in education:

“James McCune Smith became the most noted Black physician to receive a formal education prior to the Civil War. He had been a student in the African School in New York, and when he decided to study medicine, he found that there was no school in America to which he could gain admittance. He finally began his study of medicine at the University of Glasgow in Scotland; graduating from there, he returned to America and began practicing medicine in New York in 1837. He experienced more or less free association with white physicians in that city, and served with them as one of the physicians to Colored Orphan Asylum. His medical career was sacrificed to the abolition cause, to which he eventually gave himself entirely.” (19)

McCune Smith was already a celebrated figure by the time he completed his studies in Glasgow and returned to New York:

“An editorial in the September 9, 1837, issue of the Colored American welcomed James McCune Smith back home from Europe, praising him as a sterling example of individual black achievement. ‘As it is,’ the writer asserted, ‘all things are becoming new. The people who long sat in dark- ness, now have the Heavenly light, and intend to give ocular demonstration of the fact, in patronizing Dr. Smith.’ Although there were others, Smith was already emerging as an undisputed leader of New York’s black community. He could be found everywhere, and his voice could be heard at all times, proposing, arguing, counterattacking.” (20)

McCune Smith used his voice to considerable effect, emerging as a leading public intellectual before the age of thirty:

“Full of intellectual fervor, Smith struggled to define what he called the ‘destiny’ of his people in three major documents: a lecture, ‘The Destiny of Our People,’ delivered as part of the 1841 Philomathean Society lecture series that Peter and his colleagues deemed so significant they insisted on publishing it; some seven speeches on the Haitian Revolution printed in pamphlet form in 1841; and a series of articles that appeared in the New York Daily Tribune in 1843 titled ‘Freedom and Slavery for Afric-Americans,’ rebutting claims that blacks were worse off in freedom than in slavery. In his political speeches, Smith based his arguments on the universal rights of citizenship. In contrast, in these essays and lectures, he asserted that God had endowed African- descended peoples with a special destiny: the redemption of their race, their nations, and perhaps the world”. (21)

In his lecture on the Haitian Revolutions McCune Smith made connections with Greek and Scottish precedents:

“McCune Smith delivered a lecture at the Stuyvesant Institute for the benefit of the Colored Orphan Asylum in 1841 […] Comparing [Toussaint] L’Ouverture to ‘Leonidas at Thermopylae’ or ‘Bruce at Bannockburn,’ McCune Smith declares these events to be necessary study for ‘every American citizen’”. (22)

McCune Smith was much more than a medic. He was a moral force for change:

“Smith was broadly involved in the anti-slavery and suffrage movements, contributing to and
editing abolitionist newspapers and serving as an officer of many organizations for the improvement of social conditions in the black community. In his scientific writings Smith debunked the racial theories in Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia, refuted phrenology and homeopathy, and responded with a forceful statistical critique to the racially biased US Census of 1840”. (23)

Homeopathy was high on McCune Smith’s list of targets when he arrived back in New York from Glasgow:

“He was appointed a physician to the Colored Orphan Asylum of New York and became its only black Board Member. This led to an ‘Original Communication’ in The Annalist entitled ‘The Lay Puffery of Homeopathy’. The article examined the statistical claims to superiority in mortality rates at the Protestant Half-Orphan Asylum, made in an advertisement in the New York Evening Post by the New York Homeopathic Dispensary Association. Smith reviewed the asylum’s records and concluded that the statistics were contrived due to: ‘A custom of quietly thrusting away the very sick children, in order that they may die elsewhere … at least such will be a natural impression until the two-hundred odd children, sent away without record, are more satisfactorily accounted for’. This is the first ‘Letter to the Editor’ of a medical journal by a black doctor. Smith ended with a bitter statement: ‘May the regular practitioner of medicine battle against the most deadly quackery that curses the nineteenth century, in the form of Homeopathy’”. (24)

Ironically, as a sworn enemy of quackery, McCune Smith was himself prevented from pursuing his medical studies in New York due to the racism of the medical profession:

“While still attending the Mulberry Street School, he was apprenticed to a blacksmith, and after class he could be found ‘at a forge with the bellows handle in one hand and a Latin grammar in the other.’ Smith had aspirations to become a doctor, but there were obstacles to overcome: U.S. medical schools proved to be just as inhospitable to young black men as were seminaries. Medicine was still struggling to establish itself as a respectable profession. All too often, the public confused regular doctors with the ‘irregulars,’ and derided them as humbugs. So physicians policed their profession with care, determined not to admit anyone who might smell of quackery. Evidently, that automatically included blacks.” (25)

Writing from his home in New York in 1843 McCune Smith reflected on the part played by the judicial system in the perpetuation of racism:

“The laws they enact in regard to us are positive proof that our oppressors are getting more and more convinced that we are men like themselves; for they enact just such laws as the
experience of all History has shown to be necessary in order to hold men in slavery. Their opinion of our manhood, then, may be measured by the severity of their laws”. (26)

Carla Peterson suggests that “what made Smith so determined to become a doctor” against all the odds may have been “the terrible ravages of the cholera epidemic of 1832 on New York’s black community”. (27) And like other critics and biographers of McCune Smith, Peterson sees the broad Scottish education he received at Glasgow as vital to his intellectual and political formation. He was embraced by the Glasgow Emancipation Society and “found the atmosphere of freedom, the lack of ‘spirit of caste,’ intoxicating”. (28) He in turn embraced the diverse array of disciplines that were open to him:

“In his early years of study he followed a general curriculum that reflected the influence of Scottish Enlightenment thought: Latin, moral philosophy, natural history, and the like. These courses affirmed principles that Charles Andrews had already taught him – the importance of inductive reasoning, of literature and the arts, of moral sensibility. But they also introduced Smith to new forms of knowledge, notably statistics. Medical courses included anatomy, chemistry, materia medica, midwifery, surgery, and botany. Smith was given practical training as well. In anatomy classes, he dissected cadavers. At Lock Hospital, he learned about treatments for venereal disease. During his yearlong infirmary clerkship at the Glasgow Royal Infirmary, he might well have worked with Robert Perry, who was studying the difference between typhus and typhoid fever”. (29)

Critics credit Glasgow as a transformative site for Smith’s developing political vision. It was there that he “absorbed Scottish Enlightenment ideals”. (30) Glasgow is viewed as the making of McCune Smith:

“McCune Smith kept his head in his books and his eyes on his studies at the University of Glasgow. He was generally in class from early morning through midafternoon, and then until late in the evening he studied Latin, Greek, Logic, moral philosophy, natural philosophy, mathematics, and eventually medicine and surgery. In Scotland he established himself as an intellectual who believed that the mind and heart together represented the most effective weapons against bondage and oppression”. (31)

The place of Glasgow as a platform for McCune Smith’s intellectual growth is a thread that runs through much of the scholarship on him:

“Glasgow was indispensable to McCune Smith’s development as a writer and scholar. He thrived at the same university that had educated Adam Smith and James Watt, and where Edmund Burke had held the ceremonial title of Rector. He absorbed the intellectual legacies of the Scottish Enlightenment. And he experienced a dearth of racism, enjoying a degree of freedom unknown to American blacks. He returned to New York City with as much training and confidence in his intellectual abilities as the most erudite white graduates, and he dedicated the rest of his life to educating and uplifting black and white Americans. He became a leading abolitionist, ran an interracial medical practice and pharmacy on fashionable West Broadway in New York City, and for twenty years served as chief physician at the New York City Colored Orphan Asylum, until racist anti-draft rioters burned it down during the Civil War.” (32)

McCune Smith maintained that intellect and moral force would win the day against slavery and the racism that propped it up:

“McCune Smith […] became a charter member of the Glasgow Emancipation Society in 1833, and his white colleagues were so impressed with his intellect that their belief in innate racial equality became ‘less a matter of abstraction to us’ than ‘a present living reality.’ In his work with the Emancipation Society, McCune Smith urged ‘the physically harmless, but morally omnipotent, weapons of truth and righteousness’ in the fight against slavery, adding that if physical means were employed, he ‘would be among the first to resist them.’ Moral weapons, he felt, would prevail in ending slavery.” (33)


Back in New York, McCune Smith was a regular correspondent for Frederick Douglass’ Paper, writing under the pen name “Communipaw”.

“Smith took the name Communipaw after a New Jersey colonial settlement—reimagined by [Washington] Irving in his writings— that brought together a mixed population of Africans, Native Americans, and Dutch settlers. Smith’s Communipaw was both himself – a mixed-race individual – and his lower Manhattan neighborhood, populated by socially diverse peoples.” (34)

According to Carla Peterson, what these writers were doing was creating a black public sphere: “Communipaw’s […] columns […] following the Anglo-American tradition, read like transcripts of coffeehouse conversations”. (35)

“Later Scottish Enlightenment thinkers, with whom Communipaw would have become familiar during his years in Glasgow, propounded theories of humans’ innate moral sense, or character, from which taste emanates.38 In a series of character sketches titled “Heads of the Colored People,” Communipaw sought to give bodily form to these abstract ideas. Like the earlier Anglo-American essayists, he endeavored to reform readers by promoting examples of self-regulation, modesty, and decorum. Yet, he also acknowledged the inadequacy of the earlier models to represent the complexities of nineteenth-century Black urban life, and so invented a modern form reflective of his community’s particular historical
geography.” (36)

In an exchange of letters in February and March 1852:

“Communipaw placed his faith in the laboring classes. […] Rejecting […] racial essentialism, Communipaw elaborated a post-Enlightenment theory of the social construction of race. By reinventing himself as Communipaw, Smith signaled his mixed racial heritage as a ‘Dutch negro,’ scoffed at the idea of racial purity, and insisted that racial mingling was a historical inevitability […] Our primary purpose, he wrote, is ‘to prove the human to be one brotherhood’”. (37)

McCune Smith was committed to an inclusive sense of who should count in black society, homing in on those engaged in manual and menial labour, and one particular piece, entitled ‘The Washerwoman’, published on 17 June 1852, encapsulates his insistence that a socially exclusive approach to community leadership is fundamentally flawed, and his determination to see race and class and gender as intertwined:

“From 1852 to 1854, a case was made in Frederick Douglass’s Paper for rethinking who ought to be dignified with the appellation Heads of the Colored People. James McCune Smith provoked this discussion via a series of nine short literary sketches collected under that title, all of which focus on the lives and liveli¬hoods of assorted free black laborers: bootblacks, washer-women, news vendors, and grave diggers, to name just a few. Largely set in New York City, where the author was a black resident of considerable prestige, Heads of the Colored People had a particular urgency in the years of its composition. McCune Smith wrote the series immediately following the passage of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law, during a widespread depression among black laborers in New York City who were rapidly losing jobs to white European immigrants, and amidst the endemic racism of Northern U.S. culture. In choosing these particular subjects for literary representation, McCune Smith lent an aura of dignity to the increasingly desperate economic, political, and cultural circumstances of the free black worker. The series forced a reconsideration of what types of people should be viewed as the ‘heads’ of free black U.S. society.” (38)

On 26 August 1853 McCune Smith published a short piece entitled ‘National Council of Colored People’ in Frederick Douglass’s Paper. In another of his Communipaw pieces published in 1854, Smith, equally opposed to slavery in the South and racism in the North, commented on just how disunited the United States was, and how diverse in terms of community and experience and allegiance:

“the main reason we are not united is that we are not equally oppressed. … You cannot pick out five hundred free colored men in the free States who equally labor under the same species of oppression. In each one of the free States, and often in different parts of the same State, the laws, or public opinion, mete out to the colored man a different measure of oppression. … The result is that each man feels his peculiar wrong, but no hundred men together feel precisely the same oppression; and, while each would do fair work to remove his own, he feels differently in regard to his neighbor’s oppression”. (39)

McCune Smith chaired the inaugural convention of Radical Abolitionists on 26 June 1855, “the first time in American history that a black man chaired a national political convention”. (40)

By this time McCune Smith was recognised as a leading figure and as someone whose breadth of learning marked him out as exceptional:

“Among literary scholars, McCune Smith is best known as the author of the introduction to Douglass’s second autobiography, My Bondage and My Freedom (1855), the text that cemented Douglass’s […] turn toward radical abolitionism. But McCune Smith deserves credit as a writer in his own right, especially given the wide- ranging nature of his writing and the rich cross-fertilization of art, science, literature, and social commentary displayed across his essays”. (41)


In a fascinating essay on educated black resistance to European immigration prior to the American Civil War Jay Rubin points out that McCune Smith was one of those who objected to the attitudes of the new immigrants:

“James McCune Smith, a noted black physician and political leader, characterized the Irish mark on American institutions as almost entirely physical. ‘They dig canals, grade railroads, carry bricks and mortar, fight our battles, and fill the ranks of our standing army,’ he wrote. ‘Or they go to the polls in flocks at the bidding of their priests and by force of brute numbers help Rome establish a foothold among the ruling elements of our land’”. (42)

This seems odd, given that Smith spent five years in Glasgow’s East End, the heart of that city’s Irish immigration. Smith left Glasgow just before 10,000 Irish labourers constructed the Glasgow-Edinburgh railway line between 1838 and 1842, paving the way for the railway company to buy the land on which the University stood and allowing Smith’s alma mater to flit to its new site on Gilmorehill.

Rubin acknowledges that McCune Smith’s attitude to German immigrants was different:

“James McCune Smith urged his fellow abolitionists to seek to involve German immigrants in their cause. ‘We must awaken them from the hazy dream of physical content which beams from their countenances,’ he wrote. ‘We must talk to them of liberty and justice…. We must not permit them to sleep on, nor lie dumb while chains clank, and the lash resounds, and women shriek for help and freedom.’” (43)

The attitude to the Irish is explained by a perception of hypocrisy and self-interest. Rubin observes that Frederick Douglass questioned their political commitment:

“Black leaders regarded racial attitudes of Irish immigrants as a far greater problem. Strict adherents to the Democratic Party, they were viewed as a bulwark of the slave power in the North. ‘Deaf, dumb, and blind to the claims of liberty,’ they represented to Douglass ‘the enemies of Human Freedom, so far, at least, as our humanity is concerned.’ By what hypocrisy, he wondered, could they condemn English tyranny overseas while continuing to sanction racial oppression in America […] Black leaders voiced outrage at the speed with which newly arrived Irish people acquired the notion of white supremacy”. (44)

Frantz Fanon’s view of how easily the anti-imperialist can become the collaborator is relevant here: “The colonized subject is a persecuted man who is forever dreaming of becoming the persecutor”. (45)


In his poetic epigraph to Heads of the Coloured People, caught between the broad brushstrokes required of the essay form and the fine toothcomb of his own expertise and insight, McCune Smith writes: “Age Zographon ariste [Come, Best of Paint¬ers],/ Graphe Zographon ariste [Paint, Best of Painters],/ Best of Painters, come away,/ Paint me the whitewash brush, I pray”. (46) Rachel Banner sees McCune Smith’s appeal to the muse as a riposte to the whitewashing of a racist capitalist culture:

“Wide, flat, and made for broad, monotonous strokes, the whitewash brush is not a particularly refined tool. And yet, the paradox of producing nuanced, social-psychological portraiture of black ‘heads’ with the blunt whitewash brush makes sense in the context of these works, for the figure of the brush evokes both a resistance to a ‘whitewashed’ rac¬ist society, and an unabashed affinity for the tools common to members of New York City’s black laboring community.” (47)

McCune Smith’s views on education and history were the fruits of his own experience as well as his considerable professional expertise:

“While James McCune Smith believed in integration, he supported separate black schools that advocated a curriculum that reflected a black perspective. Having been educated in the African Free Schools in New York City, James McCune Smith believed that black teachers had more success than white teachers with black children. James McCune Smith also presented numerous suffrage petitions to New York’s state legislature and told white abolitionists that they were not suited to fight the black man’s battles, nor could they grasp his concern. In 1855, James McCune Smith joined his boyhood friend, Henry Highland Garnet, and presented suffrage petitions before the state. He participated in the Liberty Party (founded in 1839) convention and was elected chairman, an unprecedented act by Whites in electing a Black man, even among abolitionists”. (48)

McCune Smith was more than an anti-racist; he was a theorist of racism. According to one recent critic he was, among many other disciplinary strengths, an expert in the emerging field of anthropology. He was certainly someone for whom whiteness was an object of analysis and critique. In 1844 he spoke of “the facility by which colored men and women turn white in the North”:

“The keen and practiced eyes of Southern men can instantly detect the most remote admixture of African blood; and interest and pride urge them to exercise a rigid conservatism. But here in the North, the boundary line is less distinct; the colored white has merely to change his place of abode, cut out his old associates, and courtesy will do the rest – he is a white. … Of one hundred boys who attended with me the New York African Free School in 1826-7, I could name six now living – all white”. (49)

One of the issues of today – 2021 – is whiteness, its meaning and history. In this context McCune Smith’s legacy is a fascinating one, as a special issue of The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education in 2007 devoted to his life and work pointed out:

“Smith died just months after the end of the Civil War. As early as the 1870 census, all of Smith’s five children were listed as white. Smith soon passed into obscurity. His children and grandchildren’s desire to pass as white caused the records of the achievements of their black ancestor to fade into distant memories.” (50)

But memories can fade to black and come back. Three years after this editorial was published, McCune Smith’s great-granddaughter placed flowers on what had been his long unmarked grave. The newspaper report on this reuniting of McCune Smith and his descendants is characteristic of the complexity of history and the relative paucity of black and white narratives:

“Greta Blau, Smith’s great-great-great-granddaughter, made the connection after she took a course at Hunter College on the history of blacks in New York. She did some research and realized that James McCune Smith the trailblazing black doctor was the same James McCune Smith whose name was inscribed in a family Bible belonging to Martignoni, her grandmother. Her first response was, ‘But he was black. I’m white.’” (51)

The report concludes thus:

“Dr. Vanessa Northington Gamble, a medical doctor and historian at George Washington University who has championed equal medical treatment for blacks, noted that Smith wrote articles in medical journals and the popular press debunking notions of black inferiority that were mainstream in his time. ‘As early as 1859, Dr. McCune Smith said that race was not biological but was a social category,’ Gamble said. ‘I feel that I am standing on the shoulders of Dr. James McCune Smith.’”

McCune Smith had married Malvina Barnet in the early 1840s. After his death of heart failure on 17 November 1865 a distance had opened up between him and his family:

“The 1870 census noted that Malvina and four of their children were living in Ward 15, of Brooklyn. James W. Smith, the fifth surviving child, was living in a separate household and
working as a teacher. Malvina and the five children were classified as white. Their four surviving sons married white spouses; his unmarried daughter lived with a brother. To
escape racial discrimination, his family passed into white society. McCune Smith’s legacy may have gone unnoticed, in part, because his children refused to promote their father’s legacy and shunned their African-American heritage. It was not until McCune Smith’s great great great white granddaughter, Greta Blau of New Haven, Connecticut, discovered her family connection. She was taking a course in the Black History of New York City and completing an essay on McCune Smith when she discovered the name James McCune Smith inscribed in a family Bible belonging to her grandmother, Antoinette Martignoni. Together, the descendants determined that James McCune Smith was their direct [ancestor]. From this point on, they proudly promoted his remarkable legacy and their African-American heritage”. (52)

Greta and her grandmother posed with the family Bible. This was a good news story.

Frederick Douglass, who was of mixed race like Smith – he too had a white father and a black mother – spoke highly of his fellow campaigner and former correspondent in his memoir:

“Nor were my influential friends all of the Caucasian race. While many of my own people thought me unwise and somewhat fanatical in announcing myself a fugitive slave, and in practically asserting the rights of my people, on all occasions, in season and out of season, there were brave and intelligent men of color all over the United States who gave me their cordial sympathy and support. Among these, and foremost, I place the name of Doctor James McCune Smith; educated in Scotland, and breathing the free air of that country, he came back to his native land with ideas of liberty which placed him in advance of most of his fellow citizens of African descent. He was not only a learned and skillful physician, but an effective speaker, and a keen and polished writer. In my newspaper enterprise, I found in him an earnest and effective helper. The cause of his people lost an able advocate when he died. He was never among the timid who thought me too aggressive and wished me to tone down my testimony to suit the times. A brave man himself, he knew how to esteem courage in others.” (53)

It is important to bear in mind that the campus on which the James McCune Smith Learning Hub now stands is not the campus McCune Smith would have known as a student. The University of Glasgow moved from the impoverished East End to the affluent West End of the city shortly after Smith’s death. It was an act of class flight in keeping with the times, and Smith, with his lifelong commitment to the excluded and marginalised, would have viewed it with suspicion. A photograph of Glasgow’s East End entitled The Back Wynd (1899), probably taken by Thomas Annan’s son, John, depicts a black child wearing a tartan shawl sitting in a ruined back court in the wake of the University of Glasgow’s decision to go West and leave the squalor of the city’s slums behind it.

For a time in recent years there was a McCune Smith Café on Duke Street, a thoroughfare near the Old College campus which would have been a regular stamping ground for McCune Smith in his student days. Sadly it has now closed. The new Learning Hub is surrounded by cafes, in a part of the city McCune Smith would have known less well, as a place of privilege.


I mentioned Smith’s friendship with Ira Aldridge and I want to end on a Shakespearean note. On 2 March 2021 the University of Glasgow published a report entitled Understanding Racism, Transforming University Cultures. A key task in tackling racism as a University is decolonising the curriculum. Sixty years after Smith left Glasgow, Professor A. C. Bradley, the celebrated Shakespearean, was appointed to a Chair at the University. On 10 November 1892, Bradley wrote to his colleague and fellow professor Gilbert Murray, saying that he found the Glasgow students to be “a set of savages whom it is a loathsome drudgery to teach”. After his retirement Bradley reflected on his time in Glasgow, “the contact with the men kept me sweeter … but I remember the grind with horror”. (54) Best known for his book on Shakespearean Tragedy, Bradley had some interesting asides on Othello and race:

“If the reader has even chanced to see an African violently excited, he may have been startled to observe how completely at a loss he was to interpret those bodily expressions of passion which in a fellow-countryman he understands at once, and in a European foreigner with somewhat less certainty. The effect of a difference in blood in increasing Othello’s bewilderment regarding his wife is not sufficiently realised. The same effect has to be remembered in regard to Desdemona’s mistakes in dealing with Othello in his anger”. (55)

What reader is Bradley addressing? Saying he was of his time is hardly an excuse, since he was a professor at a University that had admitted a young man seventy years earlier who proved to be a far superior interpreter of bodily expressions than Bradley. Bradley goes further, digging a hole for himself in a further aside buried in another footnote:

“I will not discuss the further question whether, granted that to Shakespeare Othello was a black, he should be represented as a black in our theatres now. I dare say not. We do not like the real Shakespeare. We like to have his language pruned and his conceptions flattened into something that suits our mouths and minds. […] Perhaps if we saw Othello coal-black with the bodily eye, the aversion of our blood, an aversion which comes as near to being merely physical as anything human can, would overpower our imagination and sink us below not Shakespeare only but the audiences of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries”. (56)

Henry Louis Gates, Jr. called James McCune Smith a “pioneering polyglot”: “Fluent in Greek, Latin, and French, and proficient in German, Spanish, Italian, and Hebrew, McCune Smith was a man at home with the world’s major tongues; he was both a citizen of the world and a citizen of the word”. (57) Long before the interdisciplinary field of Medical Humanities emerged as a collaborative and innovative research area, McCune Smith was demonstrating the strength of the kind of knowledge exchange and public engagement so much valued today. As Gates remarks, this Glasgow medical graduate was no observer of rigid disciplinary boundaries any more than he was a respecter of racial barriers:

“McCune Smith was the prototypical black modernist, half a century before modernism was born. He argued that ‘black’ and ‘white’ cultures were mutually constitutive; he was as comfortable reading Aristotle and Virgil, Montaigne and Shakespeare, Carlyle and Mill, Byron and the Romantics, as he was reading his contemporaries Melville and Whitman. He regularly quoted and reflected upon Melville and Whitman, as well as his upon fellow black abolitionists Frederick Douglass and William Wells Brown […] Indeed, James McCune Smith was most probably the first experimental writer in the African American tradition, a premodern postmodernist, as it were, a writer who was as fascinated with language for language’s sake as he was with content, with the essay’s capacity to influence or persuade.” (58)

With the opening of the James McCune Smith Learning Hub and the University of Glasgow’s commitment to decolonising the curriculum – which also means decolonising a whole critical tradition –the role of the humanities in understanding racism takes on a fresh importance. In this regard we have more to learn from McCune Smith than Bradley. We should certainly read more by and about this remarkable man. He was a hub as well as a spokesperson. In a short film made by the New York Historical Society Danny Glover voiced McCune Smith in a manner that suggested there might be dramatic potential in a biopic.


(1) See John Stauffer (ed.), The Works of James McCune Smith: Black Intellectual and Abolitionist, with a foreword by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006). This was one of the flagship volumes that launched Oxford’s Collected Black Writings series.
(2) Britt Rusert, ‘The Banneker Age: Black Afterlives of Early National Science’, in Fugitive Science: Empiricism and Freedom in Early African American Culture (New York: NYU Press, 2017), 33-64, at 51. The facts of McCune Smith’s life are not entirely settled. There is a lot of inconsistency especially in the earlier critical tradition. In a tribute published in 1945, but written earlier, the author of a brief biographical sketch states that McCune Smith was “sent to Edinburgh, Scotland”, rather than to Glasgow, but this outline of his life adds that the woman he married, Malvenia Barnet, was “the daughter of James Barnet, Grand Master of Masons for the State of New York”. A. A. Schomburg, ‘James McCune Smith’, Negro History Bulletin 9, 2 (1945): 41-42, at 42. For a more recent appraisal see David W. Blight, ‘In Search of Learning, Liberty, and Self Definition: James McCune Smith and the Ordeal of the Antebellum Black Intellectual’, Afro-Americans in New York Life and History 9, 2 (1985): 7-25. New work on McCune Smith will transform our understanding. See for example Carla L. Peterson, ‘Reconstructing James McCune Smith’s Alexandrine Library: The New York State/County and National Conventions (1845-1855)’, in P. Gabrielle Foreman, Jim Casey, and Sarah L. Patterson (eds.), The Colored Conventions Movement: Black Organizing in the Nineteenth Century (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2021), 105-122.
(3) Thomas M. Morgan, ‘The Education and Medical Practice of Dr. James McCune Smith (1813- 1865), First Black American to Hold a Medical Degree’, Journal of the National Medical Association 95, 7 (July 2003): 603-614, at 603.
(4) Craig D. Townsend, ‘The Chains That Bind’, in Faith in Their Own Color: Black Episcopalians in Antebellum New York City (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005), 73-83, at 73. The context was a legal hearing in the wake of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act at which McCune Smith was attempting to debunk definitions of race designed to incriminate or intimidate.
(5) Morgan, ‘The Education and Medical Practice of Dr. James McCune Smith’, 605.
(6) Morgan, ‘The Education and Medical Practice of Dr. James McCune Smith’, 606. On the wider history of Africans and African Americans in Scotland see Ian Duffield, ‘Identity, Community and the Lived Experience of Black Scots from the Late Eighteenth to the Mid‐nineteenth Centuries’, Immigrants & Minorities 11, 2 (1992): 105-129.
(7) Jacob Crane, ‘“Razed to the Knees”: The Anti-Heroic Body in James McCune Smith’s “The Heads of Colored People”‘, African American Review 51, 1 (2018): 7-21, esp. 19-20, n.7.
(8) Cited in Crane, ‘“Razed to the Knees”‘, 20, n.7.
(9) Morgan, ‘The Education and Medical Practice of Dr. James McCune Smith’, 608.
(10) See Bernth Lindfors, ‘Ira Aldridge as Macbeth’, in Scott L. Newstok and Ayanna Thompson (eds.), Weyward Macbeth: Intersections of Race and Performance, Signs of Race (Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), 45-54.
(11) Morgan, ‘The Education and Medical Practice of Dr. James McCune Smith’, 604.
(12) Morgan, ‘The Education and Medical Practice of Dr. James McCune Smith’, 608.
(13) C. F. P., ‘The Glasgow Lock Hospital, 41 Rottenrow’, Glasgow Medical Journal 30, 1 (1888): 48-49. The Lock has been the subject of important archival work by Anna Forrest, librarian at Glasgow’s Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons.
(14) ‘Editorial Dedication: James McCune Smith (1813-1865)’, The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education 55 (2007): 1.
(15) Morgan, ‘The Education and Medical Practice of Dr. James McCune Smith’, 610.
(16) Lundy Braun, ‘Black Lungs and White Lungs: The Science of White Supremacy in the Nineteenth-Century United States’, in Breathing Race into the Machine Book: The Surprising Career of the Spirometer from Plantation to Genetics (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014), 28-54, at 30.
(17) Molly Rogers, ‘Scientific Moonshine’, in Molly Rogers and David W. Blight (eds.), Delia’s Tears: Race, Science, and Photography in Nineteenth-century America )(New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010), 253-268, at 264.
(18) Rogers, ‘Scientific Moonshine’, 266.
(19) J. John Harris III, Cleopatra Figgures, and David G. Carter, ‘A Historical Perspective of the Emergence of Higher Education in Black Colleges’, Journal of Black Studies 6, 1 (1975): 55-68, at 57. For background see Axel C. Hansen, ‘Black Americans in Medicine’, Journal of the National Medical Association 76, 7 (1984): 693-695.
(20) Carla L. Peterson, ‘Community Building: Circa 1840’, in Black Gotham: A Family History of African Americans in Nineteenth-Century New York City (New Haven: Yale University Press), 117-146, at 119.
(21) Peterson, ‘Community Building: Circa 1840’, 130.
(22) Ivy G. Wilson, ‘The Writing on the Wall: Revolutionary Aesthetics and Interior Spaces’, in Cindy Weinstein and Christopher Looby (eds.), American Literature’s Aesthetic Dimensions (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012), 56-72, at 66.
(23) Morgan, ‘The Education and Medical Practice of Dr. James McCune Smith’, 603. See James McCune Smith, ‘On the Fourteenth Query of Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on Virginia’, Anglo-African Magazine 1, 8 (August 1859): 225-238.
(24) Leslie A. Falk, ‘Black Abolitionist Doctors and Healers, 1810-1885’, Bulletin of the History of Medicine 54, 2 (1980): 258-272, at 260. Smith’s ‘Lay Puffery of Homeopathy’ appeared in The Annalist (1847-8): 348-351.
(25) Carla L. Peterson, ‘The Young Graduates: Circa 1834’, in Black Gotham, 93-116, at 114.
(26) Cited in Faith Marchal, ‘When Freeing the Slaves Was Illegal: “Reverse-Trafficking” and the Unholy, Unruly Rule of Law’, in John Winterdyk and Jackie Jones (ed.), The Palgrave International Handbook of Human Trafficking (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2020), 51-66, at 54.
(27) Peterson, ‘The Young Graduates: Circa 1834’, in Black Gotham, 93-116, at 115.
(28) Peterson, ‘The Young Graduates: Circa 1834’, in Black Gotham, 93-116, at 115:
(29) Peterson, ‘The Young Graduates: Circa 1834’, in Black Gotham, 93-116, at 115.
(30) Carla L. Peterson, ‘Mapping Taste: Urban Modernities from the Tatler and Spectator to Frederick Douglass’ Paper’, American Literary History 32.4 (2020): 691-722, at 701.
(31) John Stauffer, ‘The Panic and the Making of Abolitionists’, in The Black Hearts of Men: Radical Abolitionists and the Transformation of Race (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2001), 95-133, at 123.
(32) John Stauffer, ‘Remaking the Republic of Letters: James McCune Smith and the Classical Tradition’, in K. P. Van Anglen and James Engell (eds.), The Call of Classical Literature in the Romantic Age (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2017), 220-240, at 222.
(33) Stauffer, ‘The Panic and the Making of Abolitionists’, 124.
(34) Peterson, ‘Mapping Taste’, 701-2.
(35) Peterson, ‘Mapping Taste’, 704. For another take on the black public sphere see Willy Maley, ‘Peripheral Vision: Black Public Intellectuals and the Postcolonial Paradigm’, in Alex Benchimol and Willy Maley (eds.), Spheres of Influence: Intellectual and Cultural Publics from Shakespeare to Habermas (Oxford and Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 2007), 295-317.
(36) Peterson, ‘Mapping Taste’, 709.
(37) Peterson, ‘Mapping Taste’, 712.
(38) Rachel Banner, ‘Thinking Through Things: Labors of Freedom in James McCune Smith’s “The Washerwoman”‘, ESQ: A Journal of the American Renaissance 59, 2 (2013): 291-328, at 291.
(39) Van Gosse, ‘Patchwork Nation: Racial Orders and Disorder in the United States, 1790-1860’, Journal of the Early Republic 40, 1 (2020): 45-81, at 49. Gosse is one of several critics who credit his Glasgow experience as key to Smith’s progressive radicalism: “McCune Smith began his Manhattan medical practice in 1837, after earning three degrees in enlightened Scotland” (81).
(40) John Stauffer, ‘The Radical Abolitionist Call to Arms’, in The Black Hearts of Men: Radical Abolitionists and the Transformation of Race (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2001), 8-44, at 10.
(41) Rusert, ‘The Banneker Age’, 51.
(42) Jay Rubin, ‘Black Nativism: The European Immigrant in Negro Thought, 1830-1860’, Phylon: The Atlanta University Review of Race and Culture 39, 3 (1978): 193-202, at 193. See also David J. Hellwig, ‘Strangers in Their Own Land: Patterns of Black Nativism, 1830-1930’, American Studies 23, 1 (1982): 85-98; and Susan Roth Breitzer, ‘Race, Immigration, and Contested Americanness: Black Nativism and the American Labor Movement, 1880-1930’, Race/Ethnicity: Multidisciplinary Global Contexts 4, 2 (2011): 269-283.
(43) Rubin, ‘Black Nativism’, 197.
(44) Rubin, ‘Black Nativism’, 197-8.
(45) Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, trans. Richard Philcox, with commentary by Jean-Paul Sartre and Homi K Bhabha (New York: Grove Press, 2004; first published 1961), 16.
(46) Banner, ‘Thinking Through Things’, 298.
(47) Banner, ‘Thinking Through Things’, 298.
(48) Haroon Kharem and Eileen M. Hayes, ‘Separation or Integration: Early Black Nationalism and the Education Critique’, Counterpoints 237 (2005), 67-88, at 76.
(49 Thomas C. Patterson, ‘An Archaeology of the History of Nineteenth-Century U.S. Anthropology: James McCune Smith, Radical Abolitionist and Anthropologist’, Journal of Anthropological Research 69, 4 (2013): 459-484, at 472.
(50) ‘Editorial Dedication: James McCune Smith (1813-1865)’, The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education 55 (2007): 1.
(51) ‘Conn. descendants of first African American doctor finally mark relative’s grave in New York’, The Middleton Press (27 September 2010).
(52) Heidi L. Lujan and Stephen E. DiCarlo, ‘First African-American to Hold a Medical Degree: Brief History of James McCune Smith, Abolitionist, Educator, and Physician’, Advances in Physiology Education 43, 2 (2019): 134-139, at 138.
(53) Frederick Douglass, The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (Hartford, Conn: Park Publishing, 1881), 568.
(54) G. K. Hunter, ‘Bradley, Andrew Cecil (1851–1935), literary scholar’, ODNB. Accessed 23 April 2021.
(55) A. C. Bradley, Shakespearean Tragedy: Lectures on Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth, 2nd ed. (London: Macmillan, 1905), p.193, n.99. One critic speaks in an aside of “Bradley’s nervously footnoted anxiety about how ‘the aversion of our blood’ might respond to the sight of a black Othello”, which strikes me as quite a euphemism. See Michael Neill, ‘Unproper Beds: Race, Adultery, and the Hideous in Othello’, Shakespeare Quarterly 40, 4 (1989): 383-412, at 391-392.
(56) Bradley, Shakespearean Tragedy, p.202, n.105.
(57) Henry Louis Gates, Jr., ‘Foreword’, in Stauffer (ed.), The Works of James McCune Smith, x.
(58) Gates, Jr., ‘Foreword’, in Stauffer (ed.), The Works of James McCune Smith, x-xi.