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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.

*                      *                      *

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.

Liverpool Research trip 2016

The Liverpool Experience

Late in January I braved the weather, and the weather disrupted travel, to return to Liverpool Central Library, to undertake an 11-day research trip, endeavouring to find more examples of Runaway Slave advertisements in the English newspapers.

Before I get to the meat, a few words about Liverpool. What a wonderful city! The people are friendly and welcoming – two stopped, unbidden, and gave me instructions for direction finishing with a nod and a smile – and remind me very much of home, Glasgow. There is a similar couthie air, and it really helped me relax from the off. Thank you Liverpool!

Liverpool Central Library is a wonderful building. Flanked by the World Museum Liverpool and the Picton Reading Room, its neo-classical Victorian style is at once both impressive and humble. The inside, refurbished in 2013, provides a contradictory modern look: with gleaming stair cases, an attractive atrium that – in conjunction with the glass and white wood panelling – brightens all five floors, and a busy, buzzing clientele, the transition between old and new is spectacular rather than jarring. The staff are all uniformed and welcoming, accommodating and supportive, and it was a real pleasure working alongside them.

My day would start with the lift up to the fourth floor (almost invariably with an excellent coffee in hand from the ground floor’s café) and either a left to the microfilm readers, or right to the Archives room. There were four papers that I needed to cover for our period of 1700-1780:

Williamson’s Liverpool Advertiser

The Liverpool Chronicle (which then turned into…)

The Liverpool Chronicle and Marine Gazetteer

The Liverpool General Advertiser or the Commercial Register

The first three above were on microfilm. Microfilm can be quicker than searching through hard copies, and avoids sticky fingers and damage to the originals, but it is fairly monotonous, and not much fun on the eyes! Apart from making the capture of something interesting more difficult, for example with a camera, the reels can be worn and extremely faint in places. This is, of course, not peculiar to Liverpool Central Library’s holdings – this goes for library holds of microfilm all over Britain, and the importance of not giving out the originals, but still providing people access to the information, is underscored when you see the tens of people using microfilm every day in libraries. Certainly Liverpool was busy with people researching their ancestors, a hugely popular pastime that I haven’t, yet, found time for.

So the first six days of my trip were given to hand-reeling through microfilm. While there are an equal amount of hand and electronic microfilm readers, the hand-reeled ones were often less busy and provided a bigger image from the film. Something about using microfilm feels very Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (the Alec Guinness version) and I caught myself giving a few furtive glances behind now and then, and once even surreptitiously assessing the possibility that the 80 year old gran next to me researching the cooking pages of the 1920s Liverpool Echo might be a covert agent of the KGB. I wouldn’t do well under torture.

Luckily, she was just another body interested in the research of ancestors (Rosa Klebb in this instance), and my research continued apace.

On day 7, I had finished all the microfilm reels and, with a contented sigh, knew I had only one paper left: The Liverpool General Advertiser or the Commercial Register, edited by one John Gore. And better yet, it was the original copies.

Newspapers are a wonderful artefact, and I thank my stars that I’m in the position of being able to read, examine and analyse them for both the project and my own research. There is something magical about reading original copies, like you are transported back in time, you can hear the hustle and bustle outside, the bell as someone comes in with an advert for entry into next week’s paper – it’s delightful.

My daydreaming of being a Liverpool newspaperman of the 1700s was helped by the fact that these were the very papers John Gore had himself used. He had taken his pen to each and every page – marking down who still had to pay, which adverts needed amended, how many more editions the adverts would last, and there were even notes of his own interest, separate from issues of governing the paper. It was fascinating, and whenever I look back on these years, I will always fondly remember reading and handling up to three-hundred-year-old newspapers, a real experience! Some of the quirkier finds were posted both on my twitter account, and blog.

The Liverpool Research

It was particularly disappointing that a greater number of Liverpool newspapers from the 18th century were not available, some were damaged during a previous move, and others were not kept at all – there is only ephemera of the Liverpool Courant of 1712, for example, which is reckoned the city’s first newspaper. Of the four newspapers I was examining this trip, several years were missing, which is extremely frustrating from a perfectionist point of view, but also from a humanitarian point of view.

Why humanitarian? Well, I felt like I was missing examples of advertisements that, while obviously not helping the individuals, would help paint a greater picture of what 18th century Britain was like for the enslaved. The nine-year-old supposed Angolan boy will never get justice, but by highlighting his case and others, we can hope that such awful scenes as the auctioning of people will be remembered, at the least.

Unfortunately, he was not the only person auctioned and sold, as the Liverpool papers held many adverts of the same ilk. Almost completely male, it was touching and saddening whenever I came across and advert. While runaway adverts at least contain some hope that the enslaved found freedom, the For Sale adverts convey an image of a lifetime’s servitude and mistreatment.

The Liverpool General Advertiser, or the Commercial Register, Friday 2nd December 1768, p.2

To be sold by Auction,
On MONDAY next, the 5th instant December,
At Eleven o’Clock in the Forenoon;
At the House of Mr. WILLIAM STAINTON,
The Sign of the Custom-House, in Brooks’s-Square,
A very handsome NEGRO BOY,
About 11 or 12 Years of Age;
And very suitable for a Gentleman’s Family.
Enquire of the said Mr. Stainton.

The Runaway adverts ran to almost double the amount, which offers some hope, and keeps me turning the page. Alongside the image of working as a newspaperman from the period, I tried to imagine how everything would appear to a young boy or girl, perhaps straight from the African coast and so with no grasp of the language, how bizarre and frightening everything would seem, men and women leering at you, gauging your worth. It seems unimaginable to us now, that there might be a re-occurrence of slavery in Britain. And yet there may be as many as 13,000 slaves in the country today. The two trades are not comparable, for a number of reasons, but it is a sobering thought that there just might be more enslaved in modern-day Britain than there was in the Britain of three hundred years ago…

This piece by Mr. Nelson Mundell. Follow him on Twitter: @NelsonHistory or read more on his  18th century newspaper finds: Peculiarities in the Press 

To find out more about the project, follow this link: ‘Runaway Slaves in Britain: bondage, freedom and race in the eighteenth century’. Twitter:  @runawayslavesgb

The project is based in History, School of Humanities at the University of Glasgow. The principal investigator is Professor Simon P. Newman; Postdoctoral Research Associate Dr. Stephen Mullen and Postgraduate Researcher and Research Assistant, Mr. Nelson Mundell.