Although James McCune was born a slave, he gained his freedom after the Emancipation Act of the State of New York was enacted on July 4, 1827. Although New York had passed gradual abolition laws in 1799, which designated that children of slave mothers were born free, children of slaves still had to serve as bondsmen until early adulthood. The Emancipation Act freed any remaining slaves in the state, unfortunately too late for some, as many slaves were sold to southern slave-owners illegally to avoid compliance with the 1799 abolition laws.
Smith attended the African Free School in Manhattan and was reported quite bright. He was placed in the apprenticeship of a blacksmith but was eager to study medicine. He applied to Columbia University and Geneva Medical College in New York State, but was denied admission due to racial discrimination. Upon the urging of one of his mentors, Smith went over seas, and studied at the University of Glasgow, in Scotland, achieving a bachelor’s degree, a master’s degree, and a medical degree during his 5 years of study. His medical degree was granted in 1837, and he went on to complete an intership in Paris.
Dr. Smith used his training in medicine to dispel common misconceptions about race, intelligence, and society in general. In 1843, he gave a lecture series, Comparative Anatomy and Physiology of the Races, to refute the so-called scientific practice of phrenology, which was used to support racist conclusions and propagate the notion of inequality. Not only did he use intellect, but Smith was an activist. He was one of the Committee of Thirteen – a group of black abolitionists who protested the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 and racial prejudice in. A primary activity of this group was to protect New York City blacks from slave catchers. From the 1840s, he lectured on race and abolitionism and wrote numerous articles to refute racist ideas about black capacities.
At Glasgow, Smith had been trained in statistics, which was then an emerging science. He published numerous articles applying his statistical training and even used statistics to refute the arguments of slave owners, who wrote that blacks were inferior and better off as slaves then free men. In 1852, he was invited as a founding member of the New York Statistics Society, whose goal was to promote the new science of statistics. Although welcomed into the Statistics Society, just as Dr. Daniel Hale Williams was denied entrance, Dr. Smith was not admitted to the American Medical Association because of racial discrimination.
He died at age 52 of congestive heart failure.
One drop of knowledge can ripple through an entire community~
1. Smith, James McCune; ed. Stauffer, J. The Works of James McCune Smith: Black Intellectual and Abolitionist. Oxford U. Press, 2006.
2. Edgar J. McManus, A History of Negro Slavery in New York, Syracuse University Press, 1966, p.7.
3. Watson WH. Against the odds; Blacks in the profession of medicine in the United States. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers; 1999.