A Tribute for America’s First Professionally Trained Black Doctor

James McCune Smith was born in New York City in 1813. His mother was black and his father was white. He aspired to be a physician but, because of his race, he was denied the opportunity to pursue medical education. He traveled to Scotland and earned a medical degree at the University of Glasgow. Smith returned to the United States and opened a successful medical practice in lower Manhattan.

Smith had three children who lived to adulthood. In an era when there were few opportunities for African Americans, Smith’s light-skinned children passed for white. Smith died in 1865 and was buried in an unmarked grave in the Cypress Hills Cemetery in Brooklyn.

Greta Blau of New Haven, Connecticut, who had studied black history at Hunter College, found Smith’s name in the family tree in her grandmother’s Bible. She conducted extensive genealogical research and discovered a large number of Smith descendants, many of whom had not previously realized they had a black ancestor. Recently, a large group of Smith descendants gathered to place a tombstone at his gravesite.