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Ira AldridgeIra Aldridge
Charles C. AndrewsCharles C. Andrews
Samuel E. CornishSamuel E. Cornish
Alexander CrummellAlexander Crummell
Henry Highland GarnetHenry Highland Garnet
James McCune SmithJames McCune Smith
John TeasmanJohn Teasman

James McCune Smith

James McCune Smith, born in 1813, was a graduate of the New York African Free School. It is clear, from the fragments of his schoolwork that survive, that Smith was an exceptionally bright student. Smith was chosen to deliver a speech to General Lafayette on his trip to New York, a great honor. From other samples of his work, we can glean his prodigious talent in both writing and drawing. Perhaps it was his undeniable status as a star student that inspired Charles C. Andrews, the school's white schoolmaster, to cast him in a dialogue performed in 1822. In this skit, Smith plays a good student who reprimands his classmate for persistent tardiness. When Smith learns that his friend's lateness is due to the negligence of his parents, he is indignant and extols the virtues of education and the rules that undergird that education at the New York African Free School. Although we do not know how this skit was received, we might imagine that parents in the audience might have found the exchange offensive.

After his graduation, James McCune Smith became the first African American to receive a medical degree. Unable to attend college in the United States because he was black, Smith entered Glasgow University in Scotland and earned three academic degrees, including a doctorate in medicine. When Smith returned to New York, his intellect and energy made him an instrumental figure in an emerging black community. A prominent abolitionist, Smith worked with Frederick Douglass to establish the National Council of the Colored People. He also maintained close ties to classmate Henry Highland Garnet, praising his incendiary speech urging slaves to rebel, even when other members of the abolitionist community objected strongly to Garnet's sentiments.

Some of Smith's published works include "A Lecture on the Haitian Revolution" (1841) and "The Destiny of the People of Color" (1843), as well as a biographical introduction to Henry Highland Garnet's A Memorial Discourse. He also wrote the introduction to Frederick Douglass's My Bondage and My Freedom. James McCune Smith died on November 17, 1865.

Engraving of James McCune Smith by Patrick H. Reason.

Engraving of James McCune Smith by Patrick H. Reason.

New-York Historical Society