Written by Rachel Walman
Patrick H. Reason (1816-1898), James McCune Smith (1813–1865) (detail), ca. 1850, Engraving, The New-York Historical Society,Gift of A.D.F Randolph and Co., 1868
If you’ve visited the DiMenna Children’s History Museum, you know that its exhibition pavilions tell fascinating stories about some of history’s greatest change-maker — like Alexander Hamilton, the New York newsies, and baseball legend Esteban Bellán. One pavilion tells the story of a hero whose name has largely been lost to history: James McCune Smith. We recently had the opportunity to make some changes to his pavilion in order to share more of his amazing life with our visitors.
James McCune Smith was African American and grew up in New York City during the first half of the 19th century. Until recently, his Museum pavilion only told stories about his childhood attending New York’s African Free School and his later career as the first African-American doctor and pharmacist to hold a medical degree.
In January, we updated McCune Smith’s pavilion to include artifacts and content related to his experiences as an abolitionist — someone who fought for the immediate end of slavery — and as part of a community of African-American leaders fighting for change in New York City. We hope you’ll come take a look at the changes we made and let us know what you think!
Since James McCune Smith’s life story is so important, we invited Joanne Edey-Rhodes, professor of Africana and Puerto Rican/Latino Studies at Hunter College, to visit this new pavilion and discuss his life with us. Professor Edey-Rhodes has a special connection to McCune Smith: one of her former students, Greta Blau, wrote a paper about McCune Smith in a class Edey-Rhodes taught on the history of African Americans in New York City. Years later, Ms. Blau, who identifies as white, discovered she was actually descended from this trailblazing African American doctor. Ms. Blau and Professor Edey-Rhodes played a crucial role in bringing renewed attention to James McCune Smith and the valuable work he did in his lifetime.
Watch the video to hear Professor Edey-Rhodes share more about McCune Smith. Are you interested in learning about other forgotten heroes and heroines of history? Registration is now open for rising 6th, 7th, and 8th graders to attend August Camp History: Uncovering Hidden Histories. There are so many more unsung historical figures to bring to light!