New York City History

The Legacy of America’s First Black Doctor

The Legacy of America's First Black Doctor


Dr James McCune Smith

This engraving is the only known image of Dr. James McCune Smith, an essential figure in 19th century Black New York City communities. A contemporary of Frederick Douglass, he was a well-known writer, thinker, abolitionist, and doctor, as well as the first Black American to hold a medical degree. Details from his writings proved to be vital resources in the Tenement Museum’s recreation of the home of Joseph and Rachel Moore.

He was born enslaved in New York City in 1813 and was freed in 1827 under the Emancipation Act of New York. His mother, Lavinia, was enslaved in South Carolina and was brought to New York in 1805 by her enslaver, who was Smith’s father. Smith attended the New York African Free School No. 2 where he was mentored by Peter Williams Jr., the first Black Episcopal priest to serve in New York City and the co-founder of Freedom’s Journal, the first Black-owned and operated newspaper in the United States.

When the time came for Smith to attend college, he was rejected by Columbia and Geneva Medical College because of his race. Instead, he attended the University of Glasgow in Scotland where he received his BA, MA, and MD between 1832 and 1837.

He returned to New York City after school and opened a doctor’s office and pharmacy on W. Broadway. He was very well-known in the community and was among the wealthier of Black New Yorkers, and part of the Black middle class working for emancipation. He was vehemently anti-slavery and anti-racist, using his medical knowledge to publish articles and essays in journals against the scientific ideas of the time that claimed to prove the existence of race. Aa an example, one theory claimed that Black people had upper respiratory issues because they weren’t genetically predisposed to cold climates. Dr. Smith refuted this idea in a medical journal, stating that the poor housing – living in damp basements and lower levels of tenement housing – was the root cause. The health issue was environmental, not genetic.

This article was written specifically against the former white doctor of the Colored Orphan Asylum, who Dr. Smith replaced in 1846. He worked there for nearly 20 years, up until his death in 1865.

Smith died just before the passing of the 15th Amendment that would have given him the right to vote.

One of his more famous works – part of which the Tenement Museum relied upon when recreating our new permanent apartment exhibit – was a series of essays published in Frederick Douglass’s Paper from 1852-54. Titled “The Heads of the Colored People”, these essays highlighted the lives of working-class Black New Yorkers, from boot-blacks and washerwomen to editors and schoolmasters. These were written at a time when labor and class issues were extremely topical in Black communities, particularly in emancipated New York. People were discussing what it meant to be an enslaved laborer versus a free laborer, and what the concept of “labor” even meant as the nation moved towards industrialization.

Dr. Smith argued implicitly and explicitly that all forms of labor are respectable and meaningful. This was the opposite of Frederick Douglass’s opinion on the subject, who believed that the only path forward for Black communities was moving towards “skilled” labor. But Dr. Smith understood that it was important to respect the laborers in these lower-level positions, not just because they were doing essential work that needed to be done in communities, but because for some people, doing that work and doing it well was important, and a source of pride.

His essay, “The Washerwoman” was inspirational for the Tenement Museum because it’s one of the few resources that vividly describes the inside of a Black tenement home of this era. Although not stated outright, some historians believe that the washerwoman in this story is inspired by Dr. Smith’s mother. The washerwoman in the story is cleaning clothes near the stove while her young son is reading nearby. It vividly describes the physicality of the work, the repeated noise of her beating the clothes, the strength and sweat involved, her previously payment of a turkey carcass resting in the larder.

Union Of Home Exhibit

What makes “The Washerwoman” so useful for our recreation is that it’s one of the few sources we’ve found so far that describes Black tenement life from the perspective of a Black person, rather than an outside white point of view. It helped us add some key details in the kitchen – the wash basin near the stove and yes, a recreated turkey carcass – but it also helps with our interpretation of the Moore story. 

Rachel Moore also worked as a washerwoman, and so did her boarder Rose Brown, who also had a young son. Dr. Smith’s essay helps us imagine how the women in this home might have felt about their work and how they interacted with the space and each other.

Dr. James McCune Smith was a prolific and integral member of the Black community and a leader in the anti-slavery movement, and we continue to honor and remember his legacy today.

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