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.