When James McCune Smith arrived in New York in 1837, M.D. in hand, one of his first tasks was refuting an autopsy report that blamed Black people for their own deaths. It was one of (too) many nineteenth-century memories evoked by the May 2020 death of George Floyd.
These past few weeks have reminded me powerfully of the work of James McCune Smith, the first African American to earn an M.D.. Smith thought he would deploy his hard-earned scientific training easing the pain of the sick in his community. Instead, he spent much of his life demonstrating that their pain wasn’t self-inflicted.
I’m delighted that “James McCune Smith and Medicine’s Racist Legacy” has been published at Avidly, a Channel of the L.A. Review of Books. To read the rest of this article, please go here.
I’m delighted to announce the publication of my latest book, Educated for Freedom, which follows the work of two lifelong friends and activists in the volatile years leading to the Civil War.
(For reviews, related publications, and media events and appearances, please click here.)
In the 1820s, few Americans could imagine a viable future for black children. Even abolitionists saw just two options for African American youth: permanent subjection or exile. Educated for Freedom tells the story of James McCune Smith and Henry Highland Garnet, two black children who came of age and into freedom as their country struggled to grow from a slave nation into a free country.
Smith and Garnet met as schoolboys at the Mulberry Street New York African Free School, an educational experiment created by founding fathers who believed in freedom’s power to transform the country. Smith and Garnet’s achievements were near-miraculous in a nation that refused to acknowledge black talent or potential. The sons of enslaved mothers, these schoolboy friends would go on to travel the world, meet Revolutionary War heroes, publish in medical journals, address Congress, and speak before cheering crowds of thousands. The lessons they took from their days at the New York African Free School #2 shed light on how antebellum Americans viewed black children as symbols of America’s possible future. The story of their lives, their work, and their friendship testifies to the imagination and activism of the free black community that shaped the national journey toward freedom.