Scot Free: Dr. James McCune-Smith and the long arm of racism, pt.I

In a three-part series of blogs, Professor Simon Newman writes on the cultural significance of James McCune-Smith, describing Smith’s status as one of nineteenth-century America’s great public intellectuals. Part II can be found here, and part III can be found here.

In this first blog Prof. Newman describes James McCune-Smith as he prepares to leave Glasgow and embark on his return home to the United States, reflecting on how his life and education in Glasgow had affected him.

In May of 1837 a young American named James McCune Smith walked from the centre of Glasgow down to the River Clyde. Among a forest of ship masts he spotted the stars and stripes flying above the Cannonicus, and made his way to the ship where he approached John Bigley, the ship’s captain. Smith had spent five years in Scotland studying at the University of Glasgow, and in an era when few Americans attended university, and fewer still bothered to finish their degrees and graduate, Smith had earned a bachelor’s degree, a master’s degree and finally a medical degree. Fluent in Latin, Greek and French and with a working knowledge of Hebrew, Italian, Spanish and German, Smith was one of the best educated Americans of the nineteenth century, and he would become a leading American intellectual. But Captain Bigley refused to allow the young doctor to book a cabin for the journey to New York City. Smith was a twenty-four-year old African American, and Captain Bigley told the young man “I have not been accustomed to live with Coloured people.” When Smith protested, Bigley retorted that “such was the custom in the United States, and as his was an American vessel, the same rule would be followed by him.”

When Smith had left America in 1832 he would have been familiar with such treatment, and likely would have been used to accepting it. Smith had been born a slave in New York City on April 18, 1813, the son of a formerly enslaved woman named Lavinia and an unknown white man. The young boy remained enslaved until Independence Day in 1827 when he and all of New York’s remaining slaves were liberated. A fortunate beneficiary of the New York African Free-School on Mulberry Street, Smith was a particularly able pupil. While working full time in a blacksmith’s shop Smith had studied Latin and Greek in the evenings, preparing himself for the medical career he had chosen. When Smith applied to the medical schools at Columbia College and Geneva College in New York, however, he was denied admission on account of his race. In contrast the University of Glasgow in Scotland admitted Smith, and recognising the boy’s academic ability some of New York’s more prosperous African Americans combined to pay Smith’s passage to Scotland and contribute towards his tuition and living costs, which would later be shared by the Glasgow Emancipation Society.

Smith flourished in the demanding academic environs of one of Britain’s “ancient” medieval universities, and a leading seat of the Scottish Enlightenment. The University of Glasgow had been the intellectual home of scholars such as Adam Smith, Francis Hutcheson, Thomas Reid and Joseph Black, and between 1832 and 1837 Smith studied everything from Logic to Anatomy, and from Greek to Physics. Perhaps his happy years in Glasgow explain why Smith was surprised and angered by Captain Bigley’s refusal to allow him first class passage to New York, a decision that most black Americans of this era might have resented but would have quietly accepted. News of the incident soon appeared in Glasgow’s newspapers, spurring to action Smith’s fellow students, his professors and members of the Glasgow Emancipation Society, all of whom sent letters to Bigley protesting Smith’s treatment. The fact that so many influential Scots were as outraged as Smith gives a sense of the environment in which he had lived for five years. Their collective pressure succeeded and Smith sailed back to the city of his birth in a first class cabin, where The Colored American reported that the city’s black population welcomed his return “to his native home, to his doting mother, and to his loving and beloved friends.”

Smith returned to America as the first African American to hold a medical degree, and he is celebrated as such in the National Museum of African American History and Culture. But Smith was far more than an able professional physician. The holder of class prizes in Logic and Humanity and of three separate degrees, Smith came home not simply as a gifted and able African American but rather as one of America’s leading and best-educated intellectuals. His education and life in Scotland enabled Smith to become a fuller, freer man. Frederick Douglass listed Smith first and foremost among the black American friends who encouraged and supported him, recognising the deep significance of Smith’s five-year sojourn outside the United States. “Educated in Scotland, and breathing the free air of that country,” Douglass recalled, Smith “came back to his native land with ideas of liberty which placed him in advance of most of his citizens of African descent.” Racism and racial inequality were inherent in all aspects of American life and culture, and even in New York City a man such as Smith could not pass a single day without encountering prejudice and discrimination. Britain was by no means free of racism: indeed, slavery still existed in the British Caribbean when Smith arrived in Glasgow, and this was an age when Britons who were confident of their racial primacy were violently conquering, subduing and ruling people of colour across the globe. Yet in his daily life in Glasgow and in his studies at the university Smith found himself treated no differently than white students: indeed, he was a popular and respected classmate among white students who viewed him not only as their equal but in many cases as their intellectual superior. By escaping from America for a half-decade and living beyond the pervasive and destructive racial hierarchies of antebellum America, Smith was able to glimpse what was possible for black men and women in a society in which race mattered less, in which people were judged by their qualities and abilities. However simple this may sound, it was a vision that was scarcely comprehensible to most black Americans. What Smith brought back to New York City and America was a faith in the belief that things could be different, and he never wavered from that conviction.

While his abolitionist speeches and writings supported an end to slavery and black civil rights, most of Smith’s publications were the work of a black intellectual commentator who did not define himself solely by his race, who celebrated the nobility of Africans and their descendants, and who resisted the racial categorizations of others. Smith was not a major public speaker like Douglass, and he left behind no autobiography. It is in his published essays and articles that Smith’s supreme confidence in the full equality of black and white Americans are revealed, while the breadth and variety of his writings bear witness to the intellectual range of one of nineteenth-century America’s greatest minds. Smith resisted the dominant anthropological beliefs justifying white racial superiority. Ideas of American “Manifest Destiny” were premised on the conviction that the innate superiority of white Euro-Americans justified their subjugation of both Native Americans and African Americans, and Smith’s contemporary the celebrated white Southern doctor Josiah Knott believed that racial hierarchy could be measured and demonstrated. Phrenology, for example, appeared to be a modern and scientific means of relating cranial shape to human behaviour. Those who believed in racial inequality utilized phrenology to suggest that there were physiological limits to what black people could achieve. Smith wrote about medicine, science, pharmacy, and geography, but his education and his own interests encouraged him to transcend his professional world and write about the people and world around him, from a series of literary portraits of working class African Americans of New York to the first published assessment of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick by an African American.

McCune Smith, MD degree 1837. Register of the names of Doctors of Medicine, graduates of the College of Glasgow , 1728-1888 (GUA26677)

Professor Simon Newman holds the Sir Denis Brogan Chair of American History at the University of Glasgow, and the Director of the Andrew Hook Centre for American Studies.