America’s First Black Doctor passed as white, so people knew nothing about him18
If you don’t know about the name of James McCune Smith, consider this to be an important introduction. Dr. McCune Smith is known as the first professionally-trained African American doctor. He received his degree in 1837, at a time when the idea of a black man becoming a physician was as far-fetched as traveling to the planet Mars.
Dr. McCune Smith couldn’t get his degree in the United States due to the country’s strong commitment to keeping black people in a subordinate class. So, he went to Scotland to get his degree and then returned to the US to help the poor. He was the resident physician at an orphanage in lower Manhattan, putting his skills to good use for unfortunate children.
Smith also enjoyed writing and standing up against slavery. Sadly, when he died, he was placed in an unmarked grave and has disappeared from historical conversation. Until now. Just three years ago, the ancestors of this extraordinary man came together to celebrate his life and accomplishments. They also gave him a new tombstone at his gravesite.
“He was one of the leaders within the movement to abolish slavery, and he was one of the most original and innovative writers of his time,” said John Stauffer, a professor of African-American studies at Harvard University.
Part of the reason that no one knew about Dr. Smith’s achievements is because he was a light-skinned black man who often passed for white. His mother was a slave and his father was a white man. Also, three of his children passed as white and were buried as white people. This meant that his ancestors would have no idea that a black man was in their lineage.
Smith’s great-great-great-granddaughter, Greta Blau of New Haven, Conn. figured out the family connection while taking a class on the history of black people in New York City. When she saw the name James McCune Smith, she remembered that her grandmother had inscribed the name on a bible long ago.
“I never, ever would have thought that I had a black ancestor,” Blau said. “We’re all really happy. … He was a really amazing person in so many ways.”
Danny Glover played Dr. Smith in a video produced by the New York Historical Society. Dr. Smith was also the first African American to publish scholarly work in peer-reviewed medical journals and wrote about the theory of racial inferiority, explaining why it was inaccurate.