This Day in History: April 18th

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Physician and Activist, James McCune Smith, Was Born

James McCune Smith, the first licensed Black physician in America, was born on April 18, 1813, in New York. Smith, who was trained overseas was also an activist and author who worked with abolitionists such as Frederick Douglass

His mother purchased her freedom and his father is rumored to have been a free Black man or a white merchant. Prior to his birth, New York passed a Gradual Emancipation Act that freed enslaved children born after July 4, 1799. However, it kept them indentured until they became young adults. The Emancipation Act of New York freed all enslaved people on July 4, 1827.

Smith attended the African Free School in New York City. His academic abilities were exceptional and allowed him the opportunity to give an address to Marquis de Lafayette. This was the start of his influential role in abolitionism. Despite proving himself intellectually, Smith was denied the opportunity to attend several American colleges because he was Black. 

Soon after being rejected from American colleges, he was able to raise enough money to attend the University of Glasgow in Scotland. Smith completed his bachelor’s and masters’ degrees before finally receiving his medical degree in the 1830s, becoming the first Black person to earn a degree in medicine in the world.

While overseas, Smith joined the Glasgow Emancipation Society, which was an anti-slavery movement and an organization that helped to fund his education. Smith also participated in a medical internship in Paris, France before he returned to New York City and opened a medical office and pharmacy that attracted a clientele of both races. 

After returning to New York, Smith quickly received recognition as an anti-slavery organizer, orator and writer. His writings focused on medicine, science, education, racism and literature. He used his training to combat common misconceptions regarding race, intelligence, medicine and society. One of his most known written works is the introduction he wrote to Frederick Douglass’s autobiographical narrative, My Bondage and My Freedom

Frederick Douglass and Smith joined forces to help start the National Council of Colored People in 1853, which was one of the first national organizations for African-Americans. In addition to activism, Smith served for nearly 20 years as a doctor at the Colored Orphan Asylum in New York before it was burned down in 1863 on the first day of the New York Draft Massacre by an Irish mob. 

Smith was appointed as a professor at Wilberforce University but poor health prevented him from taking on the position. He died on November 17, 1865 at the age of 52.

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