America’s First Black Doctor passed as white, so people knew nothing about him


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.




  1. Stephanie Robinson on

    This is the history that needs to be taught in All schools, as well as his family being given recognition for the doctor.

  2. Muriel Walker on

    I am speechless, we have such a rich legacy. A legacy that is unknown, and therefore can’t receive the appreciation it deserves. Does anyone know why books are not published that would educate our black children. The Your Black World Publication has enlightened me and I am 63 years old. Can you imagine the inspirational force and psychological impact this kind of knowledge would be for this generation, reading page after page of NOT DURING SLAVERY, but LIFE AFTER SLAVERY? We say the white man keeps us in the dark, and this is true, but we are keeping us in the dark too. Aren’t we?

  3. There must be approximately 40 million Blacks passing as whites in this Country, USA, and so; there is nothing new about Blacks passing as Whites. Its a every day kind of thing. It is a bugaboo subject, that folk are dodging and ducking the issue all the time. Evenso, James McCune Smith deserves all recognition due him!

    • I am hearing about this for the very first time, and wish to share it with my friends who, I’m sure, have not heard of him before.

  4. Please dont include this person in our history.he was part of the ptoblem and NOT a person to be admired in ANY hell with him and his newly discovered black *ss offspring

  5. Michelle Strongfields. MD on

    The family members of this man who were born after him him are considered DESCENDANTS. . Dr. Smith is their ancestor.

  6. No, he was not “black”, he was bi-racial. Isn’t it time we got rid of the one drop rule?

    Very proud of him, and I am happy he is accepted by white ancestors, but we have to just call it what it is…I have bir-racial relatives who just look white, but they call themselves African-American because of the one drop rule…this is strange to me.

  7. Really inspiring how despite the conflicts he achieved what he achieved but so sad he couldn’t be himself while achieving it. Gives me strength to push thru.

  8. Wiley Brooks-Martin on

    Awesome article. I did notice one error that confused me for a minute. Where it states his ancestors got to together to celebrate his accomplishments, I believe that should be his descendants.

    Thanks for posting and informing me of this great man.

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