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

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 I can be found here, and part II can be found here.

In the final part of this blog series on James McCune-Smith, Prof. Newman examines some of the other articles Smith published, and questions the impact of Smith’s impressive cultural and intellectual achievements.

“The Critic at Chess” (1855) is a very clever essay in which Smith describes an afternoon spent with Philip Bell (an African American newspaper editor and abolitionist), playing chess and discussing Tennyson’s recently published “Charge of the Light Brigade.” Even though Bell laments Smith’s ability to “spoil a game of chess by your nattering,” the pair’s discussion of Tennyson’s poetry enables Smith to convince Bell that the English poet had utilised an old Congo war chant later used as a battle cry by Haitian revolutionaries. The chant, which Smith shows to share important characteristics with Tennyson’s famous lines, had been published in the Revue des Mondes: Smith had “picked it up at Ballière’s” book shop, “published four years ago, and as old as Africa.” As they move chess pieces around the board, with each player’s move described in brackets when that player next speaks, Smith makes clear that he is trying to show human culture and learning to be universal rather than racially defined and limited. African Americans and indeed all people could draw on non-white history, learning and culture, and he affirmed that the pages of black abolitionist newspapers need not depend on items “scissored from the New York Tribune, nor transcribed from Mother Goose’s melodies, nor Sinbad the Sailor.”

“Moving in May in the City” (1859) described the annual tradition of seeking out a new and better family home, and Smith relished describing “Maying” amongst New York City’s black residents. Smith delighted in making fun of himself, remembering his and his wife’s first experience of Maying: “With number one in the right arm, number two in my left (he is now a stout boy…), a large flexible handled basket full of things slung around my neck in front, and a tin pail ditto ditto in the opposite side, you would have seen a picture indeed.” The style and the tone of this essay is not unlike those found in far more modern newspapers, describing daily life in the city, although Smith did not hesitate to move beyond humorous anecdotes to a discussion of property values and the huge fortunes founded upon New York realty.

Smith’s review of a musical performance by Elizabeth Greenfield, perhaps the most celebrated black singer of the antebellum era, enabled him to see and discuss the possibility of a very different kind of society. Although born a slave Greenfield had white, Native American and African ancestry yet embraced an African American identity. Smith knew the importance of that choice, writing that “There is one thing our people must learn, and the victory is won: we must learn to love, respect and glory on our negro nature!” Smith watched and listed to ‘The Black Swan” with two thousand New Yorkers in March 1855, sitting amidst a “thoroughly speckled” interracial audience. Black men sat beside white women, white men sat near black women, and Smith celebrated the power of this melding which was illegal in the South and unusual in the North.

One of the most moving of Smith’s many newspaper and magazine essays was “The New Pen and Old Graveyards” (1856). Reporting that he had recently enjoyed “the strange pleasure of attending grave yards” Smith compared Quaker and ancient Egyptian burial practices, contrasting the humble simplicity of Quakers who eschewed tombstones with the flamboyant ancient Egyptian rulers whose pyramids endured for millennia. To Smith, however, neither practice had much to commend it, and he concluded that the graves of the Quakers and Egyptians showed “no imagination, [and] no faith.” In contrast Smith found the simple epitaphs on worn gravestones in St. Paul’s cemetery off Broadway “infinitely more eloquent, more harmonizing, more elevating” to those who read them. “An affectionate wife, a tender parent, and an humble follower of the BLESSED JESUS,” he read before noticing that this woman’s husband had died just two years after her. For all that he was one of America’s best-educated intellectuals and a leader of the Abolitionist movement, Smith was also a doctor and pharmacist and the physician to an orphan children’s home. He spent much of his working life among ordinary working New Yorkers, and in essays like this one he showed a profound respect and deep empathy for his fellow citizens.

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How is it that Americans have all but forgotten one of the leading African Americans of the nineteenth century, a great and an accomplished essayist? The nation’s first black medical professional, an accomplished essayist and a leading abolitionist, Smith had joined with men such as Frederick Douglass, John Brown and Gerritt Smith to found the Radical Abolitionists political party in 1855. Indeed, Smith had chaired the party’s national convention: more than one hundred and thirty years would pass before another African American would hold the same office. But Smith did not seek out major public roles, he never published an autobiography, and many of his essays are buried in long forgotten ephemeral magazines and journals. And for all that Smith was a major intellectual he was neither a willing nor a particularly able public speaker, and his relatively few major speeches were soon forgotten. Dying young, just a few months following the death of the Confederacy, Smith’s children with Malvina Barnet–who was yet more light-skinned than him–were listed in the 1870 census as white. Within a generation of his death Smith had no descendants who identified themselves as black and who would treasure and protect his memory. It was only in 2004 when his great-great-great granddaughter recognised Smith’s name in a family bible that Greta Blau realised that she had a significant black ancestor. Today it is in his many published essays and articles that we can rediscover James McCune Smith, enjoying his wit and wisdom, and recognising his celebration of African ancestry and identity and his commitment to a society in which race—as most of his contemporaries recognised it—no longer mattered.

McCune Smith matriculating in Medicine 1835-6, Medical Matriculations, 1822-43 (GUA31247)
McCune Smith, MA degree 1836. Graduation Album: Names of Masters in Arts, 1835-36 (GUA26676)

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.

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

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 I can be found here, and part III can be found here.

In this second blog on James McCune-Smith, Prof. Newman analyses Smith’s series of articles on New York’s working class African Americans which appeared under the general title ‘Heads of the Colored People’.

Many of Smith’s essays were written for Frederick Douglass’s publications and quite often Smith addressed these to Douglass, abandoning literary conventions in order to write something of interest and importance to a valued friend. Many of his essays shared a concern with rejecting the condescension and paternalism of whites (including Abolitionists) and showing African Americans to be as able, as hard-working, as loving and as spiritual as white Americans. Moreover, Smith delighted in highlighting the ways in which African American culture infused and enriched American life, anticipating Ralph Ellison’s suggestion that Euro-Americans were more African than they knew. In an essay celebrating the multi-racial society of Nicaragua published in 1852 Smith astutely observed that white Americans who doubted the intellect and ability of black Americans did so because they did not see the person in front of them but instead observed “a hideous monster of the mind… so utterly and ineffably monstrous as to frighten reason from its throne, and justice from its balance, and mercy from its hallowed temple,” the product of centuries of racism.

Amongst the most interesting of Smith’s essays are a series of ten biographical character sketches entitled “Heads of the Coloured People,” which were published in Frederick Douglass’s Paper between 1852 and 1854. Smith used his considerable literary skills to paint carefully crafted word portraits of the lives and work of members of New York City’s black working class, many of them people he encountered through his medical practice and pharmacy. This was an era of significant and sometimes violent racism in the city, made worse by a lengthy economic recession that made competition for jobs all the more difficult. Moreover, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 meant that escaped slaves who had made lives for themselves in New York faced recapture and return to the South, forcing many to leave. It was this embattled community, seldom the subject of serious study in mid-nineteenth century America, upon which Smith focused, with essays on a newspaper seller, a washerwoman, a bootblack, a church sexton and others. In order to capture these people Smith experimented with his writing, rejecting the sentimental fictional norms of the day for a kind of realism that was ahead of its time. He described and reported their thoughts and words, often in idiomatic English, and he celebrated them as dignified and respectable residents of the city who deserved respect. Indeed, Smith’s portrayals of the “heads” of black people implicitly lampooned the phrenologists who claimed African Americans were somehow less civilized and not as advanced as white Americans.

Smith’s portraits seamlessly blend classical literary allusions into rich descriptions of working people and their environments. “The Black News-Vendor” was a runaway slave from Virginia who had left the city whenever slave catchers came near, losing his legs two years earlier following a shipwreck off the coast of New Jersey. Smith watched this husband and father, “razed to the knees,” engaging with white customers, observing that “the true heart of the American people beats kindly and with warm sympathy towards him!” From hung-over Irishmen who sometimes view African Americans with great suspicion to “the dandy, who thinks… the negro almost a dog,” the vendor’s customers treated him with respect and kindness, “human creature to human creature”. “The Boot-Black” was an illiterate former slave who was committed to the education of his children, a parent determined that his children would enjoy the advantages denied to him. With no little relish Smith reported that the man’s eldest daughter had become a teacher with a successful school of her own. Smith’s sketch of “The Whitewasher” appears strikingly modern, with its portrayal of a man employed to paint and whitewash walls as one who understood the roots and nature of America’s racial divide and who did not hesitate to exploit it, overcharging the same white customers he lampooned. Admiring the man’s skill as a craftsman, an artist and a businessman, Smith was perhaps most impressed by this African-born former slave’s learning and wit. Still able to write Arabic and recite portions of the Qu’ran he was “full of apt proverbs… always hot and pithy.” When the whitewasher told a “wag” that he had come from Africa, the young white man asked “What brought you here?” “Your broder” responded the whitewasher, and when challenged he went on “Well, he had straight hair, blue eyes, small mout’, and white skin, must be your broder!” With no little satisfaction Smith reported that as “they say in Congress, the “conversation dropped.”” In “The Washerwoman” Smith described a powerful African American woman who as she irons clothes thinks with a smile of the care package she has just sent South to “her sisters and their children who toil as hard but without any pay!” It is the rhythm of her work which defines Smith’s literary sketch, the “Dunk! Dunk!” of the smoothing iron on the board punctuating descriptions that elevate the woman and the dignity of her work.

Although he published all of Smith’s “heads” portraits, Douglass did not entirely approve of them, as he made clear in a “Letter from the Editor” (May 1853). Douglass contended that “little can be learned of the coloured people as a whole by merely seeing them in the streets,” and in contrast he described and celebrated the respectable, middle class African Americans who were members of a church affiliated literary society, before mentioning other prosperous businesses owned by black Americans. “In respect to talents and real ability,” Douglass concluded, the “colored citizens of New York” were an impressive people who showed themselves the equal of whites, and he asked “Why will not my able New York correspondent bring some of the real “heads of the colored people” before our readers?” But Smith ignored his friend, for Smith refused to locate the future of his race solely in the emulation of middle class white respectability by an emerging black middle class. While Douglass felt that Smith’s portraits were demeaning, Smith continued to celebrate craftsmen and labouring men and women who were as able to transcend racism as bourgeois black Americans.

McCune Smith. Prize-list, Humanity Class, 1833-34 (Sen10/3, p.47)


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.