Category Archives: Education

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.

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.

The ‘Slave Auction’ & teaching slavery sensitively

It wasn’t too long ago that I found myself at the always engaging “What’s Happening in Black British History” conference. During an excellent presentation by Justice 2 History, in which they covered some of the problems they had faced in London classrooms on the teaching of slavery, one of the presenters, a young man from inner London, explained that during his placement he had wandered over to the walls and looked at the displays created by the class. On a poster that collected the generalised end products of slavery, he noticed a subheading titled, something similar to, “how did slavery benefit black people?” Naturally as he recounted this story the audience were all quite shocked and, caught up in the moment, someone declared “if this is what is happening in London schools, what is the teaching around the rest of the country like?”

Irascible with back pain, and slightly weary of the London-centric focus during the conference, I was quick to jump to the defence of my colleagues, explaining that the slave trade is a very popular topic, especially North of the border, and many teach it extremely well. (Furthermore, it cannot be assumed that teaching is worse the further its distance from the metropolis!)

A recent news story reignited, for me at least, this debate around sensitive handling of the Atlantic Slave Trade.

Rochester Grammar School in Kent was accused of trivialising the sale trade

An image of the worksheet used by the Kent Grammar School. Credit: Facebook/Remi Okukoya

The Telegraph carried a story where a grammar school had asked students to buy slaves, focusing on the physical characteristics and cost of the enslaved. The exercise was meant to introduce the students to the economics of the slave trade, by asking them to step into the shoes of slave traders and purchase the ‘best’ slaves for the plantations/companies. A local businesswoman, and presumably a parent, posted this on Facebook which brought this misguided lesson to the wider attention of the public.

The Telegraph story was then submitted to a Facebook group, where the discussion showed clear divides on whether the Slave Auction activity constituted a good method of teaching. Ian Phillips, an educationalist based in England, added to the discussion by posting two excellent links to further the conversaion, and pointed out that such an activity:

[is] a-historical at best and insensitive at worst. Would you re-enact an Auschwitz selection asking which of the following Jews you would select for slave labour… The problem with the Slave Auction activity is that it is undertaken from the perspective of the Slave Owners and Slave traders and the voice or perspective of the people who were slaves is either overlooked or they are portrayed as anonymous victims.

The topic didn’t engage many in the group and this, I think, partly indicates the lack of a deeper understanding in the UK’s teaching industry around race and the issues that surround it. In Scotland, for example, our general profession is struggling to attract ethnic minority teachers, and most classrooms in Scotland have a white majority, and so the issue of racism and its impact upon students is rarely taught in any detail to practitioners. In a wider sense, though our society at large is seen as more tolerant and left-wing than our American cousins, race is still a topic that few would profess true understanding of, never mind having engaged in critical dialogue around.

But this must change. To paraphrase a great man, if there is no struggle, there is no progress, and the struggle here is realising that we are using outdated and unfit ideas to teach lessons.

One of the links Phillips provided leads to an article by Dr Kay Traille, which discusses the affect teaching of slavery can have upon black students. This, based upon work for her thesis, highlights some worrying concerns. She starts by noting from Husbands and Pendry that “[w]ork in history education may have under-estimated the extent to which children’s capacity to respond to historical tasks is affected by issues of emotional and affective maturation“.1 Students of African-Caribbean descent, she found, “felt implicitly and explicitly negatively stereotyped by teachers and peers because of their black heritage“.2 Something that we should do before we go into detail on the topic of the Atlantic Slave Trade is explain that slavery is a major phenomenon throughout all human history, not just something that happened in the New World, nor one limited to our period of study. This positioning allows the students to understand it as the ages long human problem it is, rather than solely one of ethnicity, an issue than can occur if it is taught in a vacuum.

A great video for this is “The Atlantic Slave Trade – Crash Course”, with the (energetic!) presenter providing an excellent overview, but also importantly putting it into the larger context.

A couple of non-teachers were flabbergasted when I spoke to them about the slave auction lesson. One suggested that teachers should feel ashamed and embarrassed by teaching such a lesson. In response, I offered that I know as well as any teacher the constraints that their job places upon them too – little money, time or resources to do more than keep heads above water, especially in the inner-city schools. Any Continued Professional Development is usually spent undergoing courses selected by the department head, or focused on learning the most recent changes to the examination system.

We all teach for different reasons – some teach for the joy of educating children and young adults; others love learning the content and historical facts; there are those that enjoy facilitating in the growth of the next generation and representing a pillar of society. These usually direct how we spend our fleeting spare moments – researching recent historical discoveries; creating new and exciting lessons to engage the pupils; giving our time to the school sport’s team or band.

So I find it hard to feel ashamed at these teachers’ ignorance on the topic. They are not the ones that have used their spare moments to research race and its impact on schools as I know other teachers have. But many of them will have spent their time on other areas that benefit their pupils.

“some teachers are creating contexts of misunderstanding, hopefully not because they set out to alienate, but because they are probably unaware or do not understand”3

These sound like excuses, and they are not meant to be. What I am trying to say is that guilt or embarrassment are unhelpful emotions here, and not something we should foist upon teachers. We shouldn’t shame people for not knowing something they have never been questioned on. Instead, the focus should be on moving forward and improving lessons for the next time it is taught. But, as one colleague commented “[i]f a forthright lesson on slavery cannot drive home the objectification, commercialization and degradation of peoples in the name of economic growth and cannot elicit response of understanding, shock and empathy then it just illustrates that we have not begun to tackle Britain’s slave history and the racial biases still embedded in society.”

All it takes is a ten minute read of Traille’s piece to realise why teaching a lesson like the slave auction is wrong, and Professor Simon Newman offers another perspective:

I think one of the problems to point out is not simply that the classroom activity takes the perspective of slave traders and owners and once again silences the voices of their victims. It is that whatever the intentions of teachers, in an age when business studies courses use ‘The Apprentice’ in their teaching, then whatever the intentions of teachers, pupils are going to regard as successful their planning of trading in human flesh. The pupil who picks ‘best’, and gets most people alive to the plantations and sells them at the highest prices is the ‘winner’. For all that lessons about the economy of the slave trade are important, it is very hard to prevent this lesson assuming different shapes and significance in young minds, with humans becoming the objects of a Monopoly like exercise. What are the unintended, perhaps even subconscious lessons this may teach young people about the objectification of people by skin colour?

Dylan William had written a piece just as I was entering teaching, where he explained that most teachers would not adapt their practice after the first two-three years: that many were simply repeating what they had learned, term after term, year after year. We can’t be like that. We need to take advantage of the excellent links we have built with the academic and heritage communities, amongst ourselves, to keep pushing forward and providing our children with the best education possible.

It is time that local councils, national teacher unions, and here in Scotland organisations such as the Scottish Association of the Teachers of History, offer courses that explain how racially sensitive topics in the classroom can impact upon students of ethnic minorities, and then provide ways to teach various aspects of race in a manner that excludes no-one and benefits everyone.

Until then, I would urge colleagues to continue the discussion, however awkward or hard that may be, and read Dr Traille’s important document, which can be downloaded with her permission, here; and Ian Phillips article looking at History and Maths, here. More articles on black history in schools can be found here.

Nelson Mundell.

PhD candidate on the project, and former history teacher.

1. Husbands, C. & Pendry, A. ‘Thinking and feeling: pupils’ preconceptions about the past and historical understanding’ in Arthur J. & Phillips R. (Eds) Issues in History Teaching London (2000), p.132.
2. Kay Traille, ‘Teaching History Hurts’, Teaching History 127 (2007), p.32.
3. Ibid., p.34.