Few people know the story of James McCune Smith or of how he ended up in Williamsburg. Smith remains a surprisingly little-known pioneer in the struggle for professional and social equality for African Americans.
James McCune Smith was the first African American to earn a medical degree and practice medicine in the United States. He was also the first to own and operate a pharmacy, in New York City. Smith was born on April 18, 1813 in New York City to parents who were former slaves. New York’s Emancipation Act freed his father and his mother worked her way out of bondage. Smith began his education at the African Free School in New York City, but soon found he could go no further in U.S. education due to racial discrimination.
So Smith crossed the Atlantic and studied instead at the University of Glasgow, in Scotland, where racial prejudice was less oppressive. There, he received a bachelor’s degree in 1835, a master’s degree in 1836, and his medical degree in 1837.
When he returned to the United States, Smith received a hero’s welcome from New York’s black community. He told the gathering, “I have striven to obtain education, at every sacrifice and every hazard, and to apply such education to the good of our common country.” Soon after that, he gave a speech at the annual meeting of the American Anti-Slavery Society, where he described abolitionist activities in Europe.
He began a medical practice in New York and opened a pharmacy on West Broadway. It is said to be the first African American owned and operated pharmacy in the United States.
He did not forget the plight of his people. 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 favored 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 1850’s to establish the first permanent Black organization, The National Council of the Colored People. His writings on colonization and Black emigration in the 1840’s and 1850’s and on Reconstruction in the 1860’s were insightful 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 is his name being brought up as a benchmark for Black intellect and achievement.
Unfortunately Smith experienced one of the ugliest incidents in the history of New York City. The Draft Riots of 1863. Initially, the riots were directed against the government draft of men into the union army, but they quickly devolved into an ugly series of anti-African American pogroms. Dozens of African Americans were lynched. During the riots, landlords had driven blacks from their residences, as they feared their buildings being destroyed. The Colored Orphanage of which Smith was Chief Physician was burned. Smith in fear and disgust came to Williamsburg where the then heavily German population protected African Americans.
He established a home at 162 South 3rd Street, between Roebling and Havemeyer Streets. He also helped found at 270 Union Avenue
a school for African American students, which was led by the black community itself. The school, the African Free School in Williamsburg, later renamed Colored School No. 3, opened in 1841, is the only one of three pre-civil war colored schools still standing.
James Smith died on November 17, 1865.