Say What? James McCune Smith on Labor, Capital, and Slavery

L: ‘Dr. James McCune Smith.’ Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Manuscripts Archives & Rare Books Div., NYPL Digital Collection, 1891. R: US Capitol Building under repair, 2016 Amy Cools

‘The main support of slavery before the war, a support which will be strengthened rather than weakened at the end of the war, is that it is a condition of society in which “capital owns labor.” The thousands of colossal fortunes which this war has already created will find no better investment than buying up the lands of the rebel States. And, owning the land, the ownership of labor will speedily accrue to them. What defense can the landless, penniless, outlawed emancipado make against the land-monopolizing, monied, law-making capitalist – who says to him, work for this pittance or get you gone and starve! In free society, there is a perpetual conflict between labor and capital; the more nearly they are balanced, the more free the state of society, but when either gets the upper hand there is more or less of a slave society introduced. Generally, capital is predominant, because capital can wait, while labor cannot.

…How …easily could [capital] subsidize any of the one-horse legislatures of a reconstructed rebel State, so as to make things right about the freedmen. The word slavery will, of course, be wiped from the statute book …but the “ancient relation” can be just as well maintained by cunningly devised laws.’

James McCune Smith, ‘Letter to Robert Hamilton’ (August 1864)

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Say What? James McCune Smith on Truth and Lies

James McCune Smith, engraving by Patrick H. Reason, with signature from a letter to Gerrit Smith, 20 Sept 1860

‘Twenty years ago Dr. Nott published statistics on this point, which he claimed were made up from the bills of mortality in Boston and New York. The late Dr. Forry exposed the fraud by showing that no such statistics had ever been gathered in either city. These statistics of Dr. Nott “break out” periodically in the pro-slavery press; Dr. Forry’s contradiction is forgotten: an instance of a falsehood being longer lived than the truth it vilifies.’

James McCune Smith,A Word for the Smith Family‘ (1860)

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Happy Birthday, James McCune Smith!

James McCune Smith, closeup of engraving by Patrick H. Reason

On this anniversary of Dr. James McCune Smith’s birth, I’d like to share the story of this great thinker and activist’s life and why I’ve chosen him as the subject of my Ph.D. studies. Rather, in a way, I think he chose me. While researching the life of his colleague, friend, and frequent star at Ordinary Philosophy Frederick Douglass, I came across McCune Smith and was drawn in by his intelligence, passion, writing styles, and fascinating life story. I’m now working on writing the first full-length biography of this great and far-too-little known pioneering African American physician, intellectual, activist, and community benefactor who also made important contributions to history, literature, anthropology, physiology, medicine, constitutional theory, and the emerging field of statistics.

McCune Smith was born in New York on April 18th, 1813, the son of self-emancipated slave Lavinia Smith and, likely, her former master, a merchant named Samuel Smith. From an early age, little James excelled in his studies at New York City’s African Free School No. 2 on Mulberry St. There, he was a classmate of, and over the years, a lifelong friend, colleague, and in some cases biographer of such luminaries as minister and activist Henry Highland Garnet, mathematician and educator Charles L. Reason, engraver Patrick H. Reason, and Shakespearean actor Ira Aldridge. All of these, as well as others among their classmates, went on to become leaders in the fight for abolition and equal rights.

Drawing of Napoleon Francois, Charles Joseph, by James McCune Smith, 1825. Published at O.P. with the kind permission of the New-York Historical Society

Upon finishing his studies at the Free School, McCune Smith continued his studies independently and with tutors, focusing on Greek, Latin, and the classics; over the years, he would come to be fluent in Greek and Latin, and to gain a working knowledge of French, German, and Hebrew. When his applications for admission were rejected from the medical schools at Columbia and Geneva in New York on account of his African ancestry, McCune Smith applied to the University of Glasgow in Scotland, which had no racial restrictions. He completed his bachelor’s degree there in 1835, his master’s degree in 1836, and his medical degree in 1837, receiving several honors along the way. Upon his return to his native New York City in 1837, he was said to be the most educated African American of his time.

Though he had enjoyed great freedom and opportunity in Scotland, McCune Smith decided to make New York City his permanent home. There, he continued the freedom struggle he had engaged in as a founding member of the Glasgow Abolition Society, this time in his native United States where he felt his efforts were most needed. While he was establishing his pharmacy and medical practice at 93 West Broadway St, McCune Smith also jumped right into political activism, fighting to remove the discriminatory $250 property qualification that applied only to black voters. He is most well known today for his activism in abolitionist societies such as the American Anti-Slavery Society, the American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society, and the Radical Abolitionists, as well as his leading role in the Colored Convention movement. Yet much, if not most, of McCune Smith’s freedom struggle took place on a personal, community, and grassroots level. He fought for greater economic and educational freedom and opportunity for his fellow New Yorkers of color, regularly gave lectures to raise money for black charities, was a founding member of the Committee of Thirteen dedicated to helping those escaping from slavery, and was the attending physician to the Colored Orphan Asylum for over twenty years.

McCune Smith Cafe & Shop, Glasgow, Scotland, photo January 2019 by Amy Cools

McCune Smith married Malvena Barnet in the early 1840s and together they had (about) 11 children, five of whom survived to adulthood. McCune Smith and Malvena loved raising children and grieved hard over the loss of so many. It must also have been uniquely hard for McCune Smith in his role as a physician administering to children, not being able to save so many of his own from their ultimately fatal illnesses. Yet he managed to keep his hope alive and his energies up, leading an incredibly productive professional, intellectual, and creative life. In addition to his groundbreaking work as the first African American to have a case report presented to a mainstream medical association and to have an article published in a medical journal, McCune Smith wrote prolifically and brilliantly in statistics, several sciences, history, travel, and literature. His writing ranged from concise and clinical to lyrical; from erudite to plain and direct; from sharply critical to experimental; from sarcastic to witty; from righteously angry to tender; from wry to comical.

It was not only suffering the loss of so many children that could have kept McCune Smith down. The Colored Orphan Asylum that he had loved and labored for so long was burned down in New York City’s draft riots of 1863, leading McCune Smith to move his family to the safety of Williamsburg in Brooklyn. He felt frustration, anger, sorrow, and even despair at the intractability of racism and oppression directed at his fellow African Americans despite their abilities, potential, and invaluable contributions to American prosperity and culture. McCune Smith also suffered from bouts of heart disease, lung ailments, and edema for about twenty years, and though he had many health scares over that time, he always seemed to rally and push on. Yet as he wrote occasionally throughout the middle and later years of his life, McCune Smith suspected he would not live a long life. He was right. McCune Smith died of congestive heart failure on November 17th, 1865, at only 52 years old. He had lived to see the passage of the Emancipation Proclamation, the end of the Civil War, and the passage of the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery, but died just before that Amendment was fully ratified.

Please stay tuned for more about McCune Smith as I continue my research into his life, ideas, and legacy…

Sources and inspiration (not exhaustive by any means, but these are some readily available to share with you online):

AFS Bios: James McCune Smith’. Examination Days: The New York African Free School Collection

Associated Press. ‘White Descendants Gather to Honor 1st Black US Doctor, Put Tombstone on His Unmarked NYC Grave’. FoxNews.com, 26 September 2010

Lujan, Heidi L. and Stephen E. DiCarlo. ‘First African-American to Hold a Medical Degree: Brief History of James McCune Smith, Abolitionist, Educator, and Physician.Advances in Physiology Education 43, no. 2 (April 2019): 134-39

Morgan, Thomas M. ‘The Education and Medical Practice of Dr. James McCune Smith (1813-1865), First Black American to Hold a Medical Degree.’ Journal of the National Medical Association 95, no. 7 (July 2003): 603–14

Obituary of James McCune Smith’. The Medical Register of the City of New York for the Year Commencing June 1, 1866, 1866, 201–4

Smith, James McCune, and John Stauffer. The Works of James McCune Smith: Black Intellectual and Abolitionist. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006

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Happy Birthday, W.E.B. Du Bois!

W.E.B. Dubois, Photograph taken by J.E. Purdy in 1904, public domain via Library of Congress

W.E.B. Dubois, photograph taken by J.E. Purdy in 1904, public domain via Library of Congress

Let us honor the life and legacy of the great American writer, historian, journalist, professor, activist, philosopher, and race theorist W.E.B. Du Bois, born on February 23, 1868.

The NAACP (of which he was a founder) writes of Du Bois:

‘William Edward Burghardt Du Bois (February 23, 1868 – August 27, 1963) was an American civil rights activist, leader, Pan-Africanist, sociologist, educator, historian, writer, editor, poet, and scholar. He became a naturalized citizen of Ghana in 1963 at the age of 95.

…In 1891 Du Bois got his master of arts and in 1895 his doctorate in history from Harvard. His dissertation, The Suppression of the African Slave Trade to the United States of America, 1638-1870, was published as No. 1 in the Harvard Historical Series. This important work has yet to be surpassed. In 1896 he married Nina Gomer, and they had two children. …[A]t the University of Pennsylvania… he conducted the pioneering sociological study of an urban community, published as The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study (1899). These first two works assured Du Bois’s place among America’s leading scholars.

Du Bois’s life and work were an inseparable mixture of scholarship, protest activity, and polemics. All of his efforts were geared toward gaining equal treatment for black people in a world dominated by whites and toward marshaling and presenting evidence to refute the myths of racial inferiority’ …

Read his NAACP bio in full here

Donald J. Morse writes of Du Bois for the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

‘W. E. B. Du Bois was an important American thinker: a poet, philosopher, economic historian, sociologist, and social critic. His work resists easy classification. This article focuses exclusively on Du Bois’ contribution to philosophy; but the reader must keep in mind throughout that Du Bois is more than a philosopher; he is, for many, a great social leader. His extensive efforts all bend toward a common goal, the equality of colored people. His philosophy is significant today because it addresses what many would argue is the real world problem of white domination. So long as racist white privilege exists, and suppresses the dreams and the freedoms of human beings, so long will Du Bois be relevant as a thinker, for he, more than almost any other, employed thought in the service of exposing this privilege, and worked to eliminate it in the service of a greater humanity. Du Bois’ pragmatist philosophy, as well as his other work, underlies and supports this larger social aim. Later in life, Du Bois turned to communism as the means to achieve equality. He envisioned communism as a society that promoted the well being of all its members, not simply a few. Du Bois came to believe that the economic condition of Africans and African-Americans was one of the primary modes of their oppression, and that a more equitable distribution of wealth, as advanced by Marx, was the remedy for the situation ….

Read the full IEP bio here

You will find another good short bio and list of Du Bois’ writings at The Pennsylvania Center for the Book’s website

*A version of this piece was previously published at Ordinary Philosophy

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Say What? James McCune Smith on African American Art and Culture

Left: James McCune Smith. Right: Nina Simone and James Baldwin, early 1960’s

‘It is the law …that an oppressed minority shall ultimately obtain a ruling influence over their oppressors. …

For we are destined to write the literature of this republic, which is still, in letters, a mere province of Great Britain. We have already, even from the depths of slavery, furnished the only music which the country has yet produced. We are also destined to write the poetry of the nation; for as real poetry gushes forth from minds embued with a lofty perception of the truth, so our faculties, enlarged in the intellectual struggle for liberty, will necessarily become fired with glimpses at the glorious and the true, and will weave their inspiration into song.

We are destined to produce the oratory of this Republic; for since true oratory can only spring from honest efforts in behalf of the RIGHT, such will of necessity arise amid our struggle…’

James McCune Smith, ‘The Destiny of the People of Color’ (1843),
published in The Works of James McCune Smith, 2006

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Paul Robeson, Black Dockworkers, and Labor-Left Pan-Africanism, by Peter Cole

Actor Paul Robeson, photographed at Madame St. Georges studio in London in 1925 (AP Photo/Courtesy Paul Robeson Jr.). Click to hear Robeson’s incomparably beautiful baritone voice sing ‘Shenandoah’

In honor of singer, actor, and civil and labor rights activist Paul Robeson’s birthday, April 9, 1898, here’s an excellent piece by Peter Cole, originally published at the African American Intellectual History Society blog

Paul Robeson was one of the greatest black internationalists of the twentieth century. A gifted actor and singer, he was also an unabashed leftist and union supporter. This resulted in his bitter persecution, destroying his career and causing, to a surprising degree, his disappearance from popular–if not academic–memory. Robeson’s connections to the fiery black dockworkers of the San Francisco Bay illuminate a form of black internationalism still left out of scholarly analyses –what I will refer to as Labor-Left Pan-Africanism.

Robeson’s life exemplified Pan-Africanism, a global movement of politically conscious black people who believed they shared much in common with all people of African descent in Africa and across the African Diaspora. In the 1930s, Robeson embraced this ideology, along with communism, and supported the Soviet Union. Robeson and other leftwing, Pan-African black intellectuals and activists—such as W. E. B. Du Bois, Eslanda Robeson, Vicki Garvin, and Hubert Harrison—fought long and hard for racial equality in the United States and for liberation of African and Caribbean nations abroad.

Robeson connected struggles for civil rights with socialism and working class politics. His interest in black equality first came from his father, William Drew Robeson, who was born a slave and successfully liberated himself. Robeson’s leftist politics emerged in the 1930s, first visiting the Soviet Union in 1934, and subsequently embracing socialism for treating black people as equals. He combined politics and artistry from then onwards.

In 1935, Robeson performed in the London debut of the American play Stevedore.1 The reviewer in the NAACP’s Crisis magazine concluded: “Stevedore is extremely valuable in the racial–social question—it is straight from the shoulder.” Later that year, he also played the lead in C. L. R. James’ take on Toussaint L’Ouverture, itself written shortly before James’ classic history of the Haitian Revolution, The Black Jacobins (1938).

In 1937, back in the United States, Robeson helped to establish the Council on African Affairs (CAA), which promoted African liberation in an era when few Americans actively engaged in such matters. Perhaps its greatest achievement came in 1946, when the CAA submitted a memorandum to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights in support of the African National Congress (ANC). Led by its US-educated President, Alfred Xuma, the ANC successfully fought to prevent the annexation of South-West Africa (now Namibia) by racist, white minority-ruled South Africa. Alas, the CAA was red-baited out of existence shortly after this victory.

In 1942, during WWII, Robeson traveled to Oakland to champion the black and white union workers contributing to the Allied war effort on the home front. One of Robeson’s most famous photos shows him singing the “Star Spangled Banner” amidst a sea of black and white workers at Moore Shipyard in Oakland. The image captures his politics brilliantly, all the more so since Robeson had worked as a shipbuilder during WWI.

Paul Robeson, world famous baritone, at Moore Shipyard in Oakland, CA, leading workers in singing the Star Spangled Banner.

After WWII, the Cold War commenced and black people linked to communism, like Robeson and Du Bois, were persecuted by the US State Department, the FBI, and many so-called patriots intolerant of dissent. Historian Penny M. Von Eschen cites Robeson’s “extreme advocacy on behalf of the independence of the colonial peoples of Africa” as an explanation for his career’s destruction in the Red Scare. I would also add his labor activism.

Just like Robeson, many of the black dockworkers I study adhered to Labor-Left Pan-Africanism. In the San Francisco Bay Area, thousands of African Americans belonged to the International Longshore & Warehouse Union (ILWU).2  This leftwing union was renowned for its fierce and proud commitment to racial equality and black internationalism. Indeed, during WWII, Robeson became an honorary member of the ILWU. Robeson and the ILWU were, in many ways, a perfect fit.

The ILWU was—and remains—amongst America’s most radical unions, led for decades by its leftist President Harry Bridges and supported by many leftists in the rank-and-file. The union put socialism into action in its hiring halls, which dispatched members based upon a “low man out” system in which the person with the fewest amount of hours worked, that quarter, received the first available job.

In keeping with its politics, the ILWU attacked racism on the waterfront beginning with its initial “Big Strike” even though the workforce was 99% white in 1934. Local 10 welcomed thousands of African Americans during the WWII-induced shipping boom and these blacks, alongside leftist white allies, fully integrated their union and fought for civil rights in the Bay Area and nationwide. Due to their aggressive efforts, ILWU Local 10, which represents dockworkers in San Francisco, Oakland, and throughout the Bay Area, became black majority in the mid-1960s with blacks elected to every leadership position available. Truly, the ILWU embodied what historian Robert Korstad labeled “civil rights unionism.”

Robeson understood the significance of the ILWU as a platform from which to demand civil rights. Two of Robeson’s best friends– Joe Johnson and Revels Cayton— belonged to the ILWU. Together, these three black men articulated a commitment to Labor-Left Pan-Africanism.

The best example of its Pan-Africanism was ILWU’s commitment to the struggle against apartheid and, more broadly, for the liberation of all the peoples of southern Africa. In the 1950s and 1960s, the union repeatedly condemned white-minority rule in South Africa and also noted the ironic similarities with Jim Crow segregation in the States. In the 1970s and 1980s, rank-and-file members of ILWU Local 10 formed the Southern Africa Liberation Support Committee, which stood at the vanguard of black working class anti-apartheid activism during this period. Leo Robinson, Texas-born and a child of the 2nd Great Migration to Oakland, followed in his father’s footsteps to the waterfront in 1963. In Local 10 Robinson became a communist and activist who helped found the SALSC after the Soweto student uprising of 1976. Although Robeson died that same year, after declining health and decades in forced retirement due to McCarthyism, other radical longshoremen inspired by socialism and liberation movements in Africa joined Robinson and following in Robeson’s footsteps.

The black and white members of the SALSC fought for the liberation of black people in South Africa, Mozambique, Rhodesia, and elsewhere in the best way they knew how: direct action on the job. To leftist, Pan-African dockworkers, the most logical way to attack apartheid and racial capitalism was flexing their economic muscle, i.e. stop work. In 1962, 1977, and for eleven days in 1984 (shortly after Reagan’s landslide re-election), they refused to unload South African cargo. By contrast, other black Pan-Africanists embraced consumer boycotts or economic divestment. Local 10’s actions set the bar for US anti-apartheid activism and helped inspire many in the Bay Area to join the solidarity struggle. Nelson Mandela thanked the union on his first visit to Oakland in 1990 and Robinson received a posthumous award from the now-democratic South African government.

Long after his death, Paul Robeson continued to inspire African Americans in the ILWU including the Bay Area’s Alex Bagwell. Like Leo Robinson, Bagwell’s family moved to San Francisco during WWII. In the 1960s, he dropped out of college after admission to the union, which had elevated so many black folks into the middle class. Like Robeson, Bagwell was a leftist and active in the union’s anti-apartheid efforts. He and his wife, Harriet, belonged to a radical choir, Vukani Mawethu, founded by a South African who belonged to the ANC and had gone into exile. Alex and his wife were among those in Vukani who sang when Mandela visited Oakland.

In the early 1990s, though not yet retired, Bagwell finished his B.A. and then earned his M.A. in Creativity and Arts Education at San Francisco State University. For his graduate degree, he wrote a play on Robeson’s life, conducting interviews with twenty people who knew him including Local 10 member Joe Johnson, Robeson’s long-time friend.

After the birth of a multiracial, democratic South Africa, the Bagwells traveled to the country, as part of Vukani Mawethu, to perform there. Other black and white radicals in the ILWU did so, as well. The Pan-Africanism of these dockworkers clearly followed in the footsteps of Robeson, who first championed the rights of black South Africans in the 1940s. The spirit and ideals of Robeson continue to shape the Pan-Africanism of working class black dockworkers who now have established connections with black dockworkers in South African ports. Robeson would be proud.

  1.  Stevedore is an older term for dockworker or longshoreman, workers who load and unload cargo ships.
  2. The ILWU’s original name was the International Longshoremen’s & Warehousemen’s Union but, in 1997, a resolution was approved, unanimously at its biennial convention, that made its name gender-neutral. “What’s in a Name? For ILWU, it’s not ‘men’,Journal of Commerce, May 4, 1997

~ Peter Cole is a historian of the twentieth-century United States, South Africa and comparative history. Dr. Cole is Professor of History at Western Illinois University. He is the author of Wobblies on the Waterfront: Interracial Unionism in Progressive Era Philadelphia (University of Illinois Press, 2013) and currently at work on a book entitled Dockworker Power: Race, Technology & Unions in Durban and the San Francisco Bay Area. He writes on labor history and politics (Bio credit: AAIHS)

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Happy Birthday, W.E.B. Du Bois!

W.E.B. Dubois, Photograph taken by J.E. Purdy in 1904, public domain via Library of Congress

W.E.B. Dubois, photograph taken by J.E. Purdy in 1904, public domain via Library of Congress

Let us honor the life and legacy of the great American writer, historian, journalist, professor, activist, philosopher, and race theorist W.E.B. Du Bois, born on February 23, 1868.

The NAACP (of which he was a founder) writes of Du Bois:

‘William Edward Burghardt Du Bois (February 23, 1868 – August 27, 1963) was an American civil rights activist, leader, Pan-Africanist, sociologist, educator, historian, writer, editor, poet, and scholar. He became a naturalized citizen of Ghana in 1963 at the age of 95.

…In 1891 Du Bois got his master of arts and in 1895 his doctorate in history from Harvard. His dissertation, The Suppression of the African Slave Trade to the United States of America, 1638-1870, was published as No. 1 in the Harvard Historical Series. This important work has yet to be surpassed. In 1896 he married Nina Gomer, and they had two children. …[A]t the University of Pennsylvania… he conducted the pioneering sociological study of an urban community, published as The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study (1899). These first two works assured Du Bois’s place among America’s leading scholars.

Du Bois’s life and work were an inseparable mixture of scholarship, protest activity, and polemics. All of his efforts were geared toward gaining equal treatment for black people in a world dominated by whites and toward marshaling and presenting evidence to refute the myths of racial inferiority’ …

Read his NAACP bio in full here

Donald J. Morse writes of Du Bois for the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

‘W. E. B. Du Bois was an important American thinker: a poet, philosopher, economic historian, sociologist, and social critic. His work resists easy classification. This article focuses exclusively on Du Bois’ contribution to philosophy; but the reader must keep in mind throughout that Du Bois is more than a philosopher; he is, for many, a great social leader. His extensive efforts all bend toward a common goal, the equality of colored people. His philosophy is significant today because it addresses what many would argue is the real world problem of white domination. So long as racist white privilege exists, and suppresses the dreams and the freedoms of human beings, so long will Du Bois be relevant as a thinker, for he, more than almost any other, employed thought in the service of exposing this privilege, and worked to eliminate it in the service of a greater humanity. Du Bois’ pragmatist philosophy, as well as his other work, underlies and supports this larger social aim. Later in life, Du Bois turned to communism as the means to achieve equality. He envisioned communism as a society that promoted the well being of all its members, not simply a few. Du Bois came to believe that the economic condition of Africans and African-Americans was one of the primary modes of their oppression, and that a more equitable distribution of wealth, as advanced by Marx, was the remedy for the situation ….

Read the full IEP bio here

You will find another good short bio and list of Du Bois’ writings at The Pennsylvania Center for the Book’s website

…and click here for pieces about or featuring Du Bois at Ordinary Philosophy

~ Ordinary Philosophy is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Any support you can offer will be deeply appreciated!