James McCune Smith (1813-1865)

Dr. James McCune Smith was a brilliant abolitionist and the United States’ first university-trained African American physician.

As a child, James McCune Smith was a student at the African Free School at No. 2 Mulberry Street. In the pavilion dedicated to him within the DiMenna Children’s History Museum, families can present and record the speech McCune Smith gave as an 11-year-old student at the African Free School to General Lafayette, practice their penmanship, and explore a sampler made by fellow African Free School student, Rosena Disery.


Unidentified author
An Address Delivered by James McCune Smith, 1824.
New-York African Free-School Records
New York Historical Society

As an adult, James McCune Smith studied medicine in Glasgow, Scotland, after he was denied admission to two medical schools in the United States because of his race. After studying hard, he became the first university-trained black doctor in the United States. The “nation” side of his pavilion explores the world of medicine in McCune Smith’s time, when treatments included the use of bleeding bowls and leeches to rid patients of “bad blood,” as well as the successful use of a vaccine against smallpox, one of the deadliest diseases known.

In addition to treating patients in New York City—including the children of the Colored Orphans Asylum—Dr. McCune Smith was an abolitionist, journalist, author, and politician who worked hard for societal progress. He witnessed many changes throughout his lifetime: his mother was born enslaved, yet McCune Smith witnessed the passage of the 13th Amendment mere months before his death.  

McCune Smith recalled the 1827 Emancipation Day Parade, which he watched when he was 14 years old, as a celebration full of “real…shouting for joy, and marching through the corded streets, with feet jubilant to songs of freedom!” But McCune Smith also witnessed intense resistance to change—for example, the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850—and most importantly, he was a part of a deeply engaged and active community of black leaders, who didn’t even all agree on the best path to freedom for African Americans.

Fugitive Slaves, undated
The Rauner Special Collections Library, Dartmouth College Library

Visit the James McCune Smith pavilion in the DiMenna Children’s History Museum to see a classroom and apothecary like the ones Smith used in his lifetime!


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Creative: Tronvig Group