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James M. Smith
On this date in 1813, James McCune Smith was born. He was a Black physician and abolitionist.
From New York City, he received his early education at the African Free School. Though his academic credentials were exceptional, Smith was effectively barred from American Colleges because he was Black. Thus, Smith entered Glasgow University in Scotland in 1832 and earned three academic degrees, including a doctorate in medicine. He also gained a reputation in the Scottish anti-slavery movement as an officer of the Glasgow Emancipation Society.
In 1837, following a brief internship in Paris, Smith returned to New York City, where he started a medical practice and pharmacy. His reputation as the first degree-holding Black physician gave him a prominent position in the city’s Black community. Smith was involved in many charitable endeavors, and his intelligence, integrity, and lifelong commitment to abolitionism brought him state and national recognition. As a member of the Committee of Thirteen, he helped organize local resistance to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.
Smith was interested in integration but understood the practical and symbolic importance of separate Black institutions, organizations, and initiatives. He called for an independent Black press and worked with Frederick Douglass in the 1850s to establish the first permanent Black organization, The National Council of the Colored People. His written commentaries stating his position on colonization and Black emigration in the 1840s and 1850s and his views on Reconstruction in the 1860s were informative observations on racial identity and the future of African Americans.
Some of Smith’s published essays include A Lecture on the Haitian Revolution, 1841, and The Destiny of the People of Color, 1843. His sophistication and community leadership often resulted in his name being a benchmark for Black intellect and achievement. James Smith died on November 17, 1865.
The Encyclopedia of African American Heritage
by Susan Altman
Copyright 1997, Facts on File, Inc. New York