James McCune Smith Predicted African American Preeminence in U.S. Art and Culture

James McCune Smith Predicted African American Preeminence in U.S. Art and Culture

In the 1843 published version of his 1841 lecture “The Destiny of the People of Color,” African American physician, intellectual, author, classicist, and human rights activist James McCune Smith (1813–1865) reflected on the future of his oppressed people. From the midst of their shared struggle for freedom from slavery and prejudice, he found hope:

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 this country has yet produced. We are also destined to write the poetry of the nation; for as real poetry gushes forth from minds embued [sic] 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 on behalf of the right, such will of necessity rise amid our struggle. . . . In fine, we are destined to spread over our common country the holy influences of principles, the glorious light of Truth.(1)

McCune Smith’s predictions may have struck many readers as far too optimistic given the dire situation so many African Americans of his time faced, whether within the United States’ slave system or in the “caste” system it produced.(2) Even when not legally enslaved, nominally free African Americans were routinely denied access to education, lucrative jobs, good housing, transportation, and services, and they were almost universally denied equal political rights and representation. Yet McCune Smith’s observations of certain aspects of U.S. society and his political and sociological studies of past civilizations provided him with sources of hope and confidence for a better future for his people. This better future would center largely on the outsize role that African Americans would come to play, as they were sure to do, in the development of U.S. culture, especially in the artistic and intellectual realms.

In “Destiny,” McCune Smith expressed some of his observations within the context of analogies he drew from them. First, as a social and political activist as well as a devout Christian, McCune Smith observed that the clergy, largely excluded as they were from politics and the acquisition of wealth, nevertheless wielded great spiritual and moral influence. Therefore, they might have played more significant roles in the formation and development of U.S. society than those who wielded more direct political and economic power.(3) McCune Smith compared this soft power of the clergy to that which he believed African Americans held, or at least would come to hold. Likewise excluded from wealth and politics, in this case by law and by prejudice, African Americans had the moral sympathy of those who recognized that such oppressions contravened God’s law and the United States’ founding principles as outlined in the Declaration of Independence, which were likewise centered on moral, and therefore political, equality.(4) He predicted that as the general public recognized the logic and justice of arguments for equality, their sympathy must, then, necessarily increase, and with this, the moral influence of African Americans. As the above quotation confirms, McCune Smith saw the “influence of principles” as “holy,” and since the United States was founded on lofty principles rather than on nationality or ancestral considerations of birth and status, the principled fight for freedom and equal rights was holy as well—perhaps even more holy, and more inspirational, than the spiritual teachings of the clergy. Over time, this moral influence would change hearts and minds and bring about recognition of African Americans as human beings, equal in dignity and as deserving of rights as all other United States citizens.

None of this is to say that McCune Smith discounted the importance of direct political action or other sources of influence, such as increased access to the wider economy, greater social mobility, and more educational opportunities. He believed that African Americans had a right to these as well and worked hard throughout his life to facilitate their access to them.(5) Yet in “Destiny,” McCune Smith predicted that African Americans would likely win their equal place in United States society through moral victories first.

Looking to the past as well as the present, the classicist and political theorist McCune Smith drew another analogy: the struggle for equality by African Americans resembled freedom struggles in great republics of the past. As he observed, African Americans were routinely excluded from much of the “bustle of practical everyday life” within their own republic, the United States, through discriminatory laws and social practices.(6) African Americans were also, numerically, very much in the minority. Many other historical republics were founded on noble principles but oppressed those they conquered and enslaved; the latter usually represented the majority of the population, who rebelled once their oppression grew intolerable or a leader rose up to unite them. However, oppressed African Americans could not turn the tables on their oppressors by sheer force of numbers through violence or politics. Yet regardless, every republic that betrayed the principles on which it was founded inevitably came under the control of the people it had previously oppressed in one way or another.(7) McCune Smith believed that this same destiny awaited African Americans. It was their fate to dominate their oppressors, he insisted, because those oppressed by every republic throughout history, from the ancient Greeks onward, eventually did so.

Freedom from oppression did not historically come only from the downfall of oppressive republics. It also came from oppressed peoples finding their own ways to endure, then to succeed, and then finally to dominate. McCune Smith wrote,

The Jews, for example, in comparatively modern times have been persecuted and oppressed very much in almost every European kingdom. . . . And yet we find that the Jews, the so pitilessly oppressed minority, now hold in their hands the rule, the very fate of some of the kingdoms who were formerly foremost in persecuting them.(8)

Jewish people had found an avenue to freedom in finance, and Irish Catholics had found one through politics.(9) African Americans faced a different set of circumstances in their oppression, and they would therefore find another way. Because they were numerically a minority, and because the peculiar nature of their unconstitutional oppression primarily required intellectual and moral opposition, African Americans would also find themselves drawn to, as McCune Smith put it, “the more abstract studies,” removed from the mainstream struggle up the social ladder, fighting for justice all the while on intellectual grounds. In other words, instead of the struggle for rights and equality being a case of “might makes right,” African Americans could win only by demonstrating that, as McCune Smith phrased it, “right makes right.” Their bloodless victory would be not only a moral one but intellectual and artistic as well.(10) (McCune Smith came to believe that force was also necessary to end slavery; as it turns out, he was also prescient in that regard.)(11)

McCune Smith recognized signs that this African American artistic and intellectual revolution was not only to be glimpsed in the future; it was already beginning. For example, as he asserted in the quote which opened this essay, African Americans had created the first original form of U.S. music (more on this below), and they were “the source and subject of many essays, speeches, arguments &c., &c., which unfold with clearness and eloquence, true Republicanism to the prejudice-blinded eyes of the multitude.”(12) Though African Americans did not yet dominate the intellectual and artistic spheres, they had made inroads. This was especially impressive given the obstacles placed against their mere survival, let alone social, economic, and political advancement. African Americans largely refused to leave the land of their birth—because, as McCune Smith argued, “We are not a migrating people. The soil of our birth is dear to our hearts”; had shown their moral superiority over their oppressors by “returning Good for Evil”; contributed hugely to the nation through their labor; and flourished even in areas of the United States where the harshest and most prejudicial laws were arrayed against them.(13)

In many works throughout his literary career, McCune Smith would identify and celebrate the myriad ways in which African Americans took a leading and influential role in the development of U.S. art and culture, as well as the ways that people of African descent were influencing world culture more broadly. McCune Smith believed it was essential to explore, describe, and highlight the significance of the artistic and intellectual achievements of people of African descent throughout the world as well as in the United States to demonstrate how African Americans would come to dominate the nation’s artistic and intellectual culture. These demonstrations served not only to show how his optimistic predictions would come true for African Americans, but also to encourage them to “love, respect, and glory in our negro nature!” and thereby to not be dissuaded by prejudice from fulfilling their artistic and intellectual destiny.(14) As African Americans became more aware of the extent and significance of African contributions to artistic and intellectual culture around the world, their self-confidence would rise, enhancing their potential to fulfill McCune Smith’s predictions of their destiny in their own country.

In his “Lecture on the Haytien Revolutions,” published in 1841, McCune Smith celebrated the intellectual as well as the revolutionary legacy of Haitian freedom fighter Toussaint Louverture (1743–1803). Louverture’s legacy as a revolutionary was well known; McCune Smith believed it essential that his intellectual contributions be appreciated as well.(15) As well as being a skilled and inspired revolutionary leader, Louverture “had a mind stored with patient reflection upon the biographies of men, the most evident in civil and military affairs; and [was] deeply versed in the history of the most remarkable revolutions that had yet occurred amongst mankind.”(16) Louverture’s “lofty intellect” was expressed not in works of art and literature but in diplomacy, in his primary authorship of a new constitution, in his lawmaking, and in “his principles [which] were so thoroughly disseminated among his brethren.”(17) McCune Smith believed that much of the African American intellectual legacy would likewise be derived, directly and indirectly, from its own role in the struggle for freedom.

In his 1855 essay “The Critic at Chess,” McCune Smith described another way that people of African origin contributed to the arts, highlighting an example in which he believed Congolese warriors influenced white European literature. He perceived the rhythm and structure of a Congolese war chant within a stanza from Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s poem “Charge of the Light Brigade.”(18) McCune Smith chose a quote from author Gustave d’Alaux to demonstrate the chant’s influential and liberating power: “When these incomprehensible words . . . rolled out on the midnight air . . . the old St. Domingo planter had need to count his slaves, and the patrol to be on the alert” as it “transformed indifferent and heedless slaves into furious masses.”(19) Tennyson, McCune Smith believed, recognized its rousing power and translated that within his own expression of military rhythm.

Artists and intellectuals of African descent, as McCune Smith would describe, also revealed their power to touch the heart and mind and inflame the imagination beyond the realms of war and politics. In another 1855 essay, “The Black Swan,” McCune Smith paid tribute to the “genius” of U.S. singer Elizabeth Greenfield and French author Alexandre Dumas. The essay revolves around McCune Smith’s review of a Greenfield concert he attended at the Broadway Tabernacle in New York City, where the African American population suffered greatly due to legal and social discrimination, as they did throughout most of the United States.(20) Greenfield, whose popular moniker provided the title for the essay, nevertheless achieved a level of commercial success and widespread popularity few African Americans enjoyed, even in deeply prejudiced and segregated communities such as New York City. Dumas, McCune Smith wrote, was also a “first class original genius . . . of new proportions and unheard of fecundity of imagination” whose “grandest peculiarities are purely Negroid.”(21) Greenfield and Dumas were great artists whose ability to touch hearts and minds cut through and stepped over the petty boundaries that racial prejudice sought to erect around them. As pioneering music historian James M. Trotter wrote in 1878, “The haze of complexional prejudice has so much obscured the vision of many persons, that they cannot see . . . that musical faculties, and power for their artistic development, are not in the exclusive possession of the fairer-skinned race.”22 In his writings, McCune Smith showed how artists of African descent would open the people’s eyes and help them see past those prejudices: “True art is a leveler . . . never was the Tabernacle so thoroughly speckled with mixed complexions.”(23) As this example so well demonstrated, African Americans and peoples of African descent throughout the world would find that artistic and intellectual expression served as their most powerful weapon against oppression and marginalization in a prejudiced culture, and in dismantling the “caste” system that slavery had created.

Artists such as Greenfield and Dumas did not only break down racial barriers within their own times. As McCune Smith related, both artists, in part due to their unique racial heritage and their experiences in a prejudiced world, took their forms of artistic and intellectual expression to new heights, creating bodies of work that could only later be recognized for their true significance and thereby influencing and inspiring the work of future generations. McCune Smith wrote that Greenfield’s work as an innovative and consummate artist as well as an unapologetically “black woman” made her a “Priestess in the Temple” of the art world. She took her genre beyond what contemporary experience and sensibilities could appreciate, creating “a new revelation of Art [which] must be comprehended before it is chronicled in fitting terms.” Dumas did likewise with his literature, for which “the rules of European criticism are too small for the accurate measure of his proportions.”(24) Their accomplishments demonstrated the artistic and intellectual “influence which it shall be our [African and African American] destiny to possess.”(25)

McCune Smith believed that the analogies he drew among African American experience in the United States, the moral influence of the clergy, and various ways in which oppressed peoples liberated themselves; other lessons of history; and historical and contemporary examples of innovative and influential African-descended artists and intellectuals justified his prediction that African Americans would come to predominate in the development of many aspects of U.S. art and culture. Yet his predictions regarding the gamut of artistic expression and creativity were fulfilled to such a degree that even he, inspired with the confidence his words reveal, might marvel at it, as we can see in the following.

Since McCune Smith made his striking prediction nearly two hundred years ago, we have witnessed the rise to preeminence of African American artists, writers, intellectuals, ministers, scholars, orators, and poets. From journalists and educators Frederick Douglass and Ida B. Wells to activists, orators, and religious leaders Martin Luther King and Malcolm X; to intellectuals and authors W.E.B. Du Bois, James Baldwin, and Maya Angelou; to poets and playwrights Angelina Weld Grimké, Langston Hughes, Lorraine Hansberry, and Audre Lorde, to name only a very few, African Americans of letters, ideas, and oratory have played central roles in U.S. arts and culture. McCune Smith himself came to play an essential if still underrecognized role in creating the “Republic of Letters” that he envisioned in his 1852 essay “The Black News-Vender,” which he described as “that glorious commonwealth, perpetually progressive, free from caste . . . which smiles upon all her citizens, if they be but true, which holds triumphant sway and is crowned with perennial laurel in the coming ages!”(26) That essay forms but a tiny part of McCune Smith’s innovative and expansive body of work, which includes writings in medicine, science, history, social and political theory, rhetoric, biography, and social commentary.

In addition to his predictions in “Destiny,” McCune Smith made several other significant observations. One was that African Americans had, in his time, invented the only uniquely American form of music. He did not specifically identify this form, but from the quote which opens this essay (“We have already, even from the depths of slavery, furnished the only music this country has yet produced”), we can infer he meant songs which enslaved African Americans used to lighten the drudgery of enforced labor and which would give rise to many other forms of African American music. (27) While referring to a singular form may have been close enough to accurate in 1843, the myriad types of music invented, developed, or hugely influenced by U.S. citizens of African descent have multiplied by orders of magnitude. If it seems impossible to name every influential African American of letters and oratory, it seems even more impossible to name every influential African American musical artist. Such artists of creative and diverse genius as Scott Joplin, Memphis Minnie, Rosetta Tharpe, Ray Charles, Nina Simone, Prince, and Run-DMC created or refined genres of music that touch the heart, stir the soul, heat the blood, and move the body like no others. From spirituals to rap, from ragtime to jazz, from gospel to soul, from blues to rock-n-roll, from rhythm and blues to the Motown sound, from funk to hip-hop, these forms not only dominate American music but have become some of the most popular and influential throughout the world.(28)

McCune Smith saw much to be optimistic about in the long term regarding the great potential for human and specifically U.S. progress in interracial and intercultural connections, even as the political and social ramifications of race-based slavery and prejudice often left him weary, depressed, or in despair.(29) This potential would be realized most dramatically and forcefully, McCune Smith believed, in the realm of artistic and intellectual culture. The history of the United States following McCune Smith’s writings on African Americans in art and culture offers a multitude of vindicatory evidence of his deeply insightful predictions. While some fear the threat of artistic and cultural appropriation, African Americans have nevertheless “attain[ed] the influence” McCune Smith predicted.30 African Americans have indeed played a central and formative role in so many aspects of U.S. art and culture that a hypothetical United States devoid of their great contributions would be wholly unrecognizable and deeply impoverished.

The text of this article was originally published in Kalfou: A Journal of Comparative and Relational Ethnic Studies, Vol. 7 No. 1 (2020)

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NOTES

  1. James McCune Smith, “The Destiny of the People of Color,” in The Works of James McCune Smith: Black Intellectual and Abolitionist, ed. John Stauffer (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 59.
  2. In his essay “Civilization: Its Dependence on Physical Circumstances,” written in 1844 and revised for publication in 1859, McCune Smith defined “caste”—a term he used often—as “the general term for that feature in human institutions which isolates man from his fellow
    man” (James McCune Smith, “Civilization: Its Dependence on Physical Circumstances,” in The Works of James McCune Smith, 261).
  3. McCune Smith, “The Destiny of the People of Color,” 57–58.
  4. Ibid., 52–53.
  5. For more on McCune Smith’s community work and social justice activism and journalism, see Rhoda Golden Freeman, “The Free Negro in New York City in the Era before the Civil War” (Ph.D. diss.: Columbia University, 1966), 40–41, 46, 144–147, 184–186, 194, 196–197, 241, 247, 264, 270, 276, 305–306, 310, 352–354, 373.
  6. McCune Smith, “The Destiny of the People of Color,” 58.
  7. Ibid., 50–51, 54–55, 57–58.
  8. Ibid., 56–57.
  9. Ibid., 57.
  10. Ibid., 57–59.
  11. John Stauffer, The Black Hearts of Men: Radical Abolitionists and the Transformation of Race (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001), 124; James McCune Smith, “James McCune Smith to Gerrit Smith, 1 / 31 Mar 1855,” March 1, 1855, Box 34. Gerrit Smith Papers, Syracuse University Libraries.
  12. McCune Smith, “The Destiny of the People of Color,” 55.
  13. Ibid., 51–53, 56.
  14. James McCune Smith, “The Black Swan,” in The Works of James McCune Smith, 120.
  15. For more about McCune Smith’s “promot[ion] of the black leader as intellectual, urbane, and historically conscious,” see Philip Edmondson, “To Plead Our Own Cause: The St. Domingue Legacy and the Rise of the Black Press,” Prospects: An Annual of American Cultural Studies 29 (October 2005): 137–138, 140–142.
  16. McCune Smith, “Lecture on the Haytien Revolutions,” in The Works of James McCune Smith, 39.
  17. Ibid., 41–45.
  18. James McCune Smith, “The Critic at Chess,” in The Works of James McCune Smith, 110.
  19. Quoted in ibid., 110–111.
  20. Freeman, “The Free Negro in New York City in the Era Before the Civil War,” 435–436.
  21. McCune Smith, “The Black Swan,” 120.
  22. James M. Trotter, Music and Some Highly Musical People (Boston: Lee and Shephard, 1878), 4, available via the Internet Archive at http://archive.org/details/musicsomehighlym00trot. As well as a music historian, James Monroe Trotter (1842–1892) was an educator, a Civil War veteran from the 54th Massachusetts regiment, a postal worker, and the next African American following Frederick Douglass to serve as recorder of deeds for Washington, DC (William J. Simmons, Henry McNeal Turner, and A. G. Haven, Men of Mark: Eminent, Progressive and Rising [Cleveland, OH: George M. Rewell, 1887], 833–842, available via the Internet Archive at http://archive.org/details/06293247.4682.emory.edu).
  23. McCune Smith, “The Black Swan,” 121.
  24. Ibid., 120–121.
  25. McCune Smith, “The Destiny of the People of Color,” 58.
  26. James McCune Smith, “The Black News-Vender,” in The Works of James McCune Smith, 190.
  27. McCune Smith, “The Destiny of the People of Color,” 59; Trotter, Music and Some Highly Musical People, 256, 263, 267, 324, 327.
  28. Burton W. Peretti, Lift Every Voice: The History of African American Music (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2009), 170.
  29. D. W. Blight, “In Search of Learning, Liberty, and Self Definition: James McCune Smith and the Ordeal of the Antebellum Black Intellectual,” Afro-Americans in New York Life and History 9, no. 2 (1985): 19.
  30. McCune Smith, “The Destiny of the People of Color,” 58. Many theories, characterizations, and posited examples of cultural and artistic appropriation are problematic in many respects, especially in the way they so often conflate or obscure the differences between influence and emulation, which empower the artist or culture, and exploitation and failure to give credit, which disempower the artist or culture. This is not to dismiss widespread failures to credit artists and cultures for their creations, particularly in the music and fashion industries, or the fact that such practices are particularly problematic when it comes to historically disadvantaged groups. McCune Smith hinted at this problem when he identified Tennyson’s possible and uncredited adoption of the rhythm and structure of the Congolese chant in his poem “Charge of the Light Brigade.” It is important, however, not to lose sight of the fact that such exploitations and failures to give appropriate credit often occur within the wider context of popular recognition, admiration, and influence these historically disadvantaged artists and cultures have achieved. McCune Smith’s remarks about Tennyson’s poem also reveal his evident pride and satisfaction in the inspirational and influential power of the Congolese chant, including within the work of that Western poet whom McCune Smith so admired (McCune Smith, “The Critic at Chess,” 109–111).

 

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

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Photobook: Jameson Jenkins and the ‘Slave Stampede’ Rescue

Jameson Jenkins’ lot in the Lincoln Home National Historic Site National Park in Springfield, Illinois, on 8th street next to the Henson Robinson House. On January 17th, 1850, Jenkins helped a group of 11 slaves escape northward, planting false rumors so that local papers would confuse the story and thus help the refugees evade capture. Jenkins was a drayman, and according to SangamonLink: History of the County of Sangamon, Illinois, ‘On Feb. 11, 1861, Jameson Jenkins drove [his near-neighbor] President-elect Abraham Lincoln on his last Springfield carriage ride, from the Chenery House at Fourth and Washington Streets to the Great Western Railroad depot — now the Lincoln Depot — as Lincoln began his trip to Washington, D.C.’.

The historical placard at Jameson Jenkins’ lot. The photograph is at an angle because the glare was so bright on the direct shots that most of the text and images were obscured

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

Happy Birthday, Martin Luther King, Jr.!

Sculpture of Martin Luther King, Jr by Lei Yixin on the Mall in Washington D.C.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., born January 15, 1929, is among the world’s most influential and memorable civil rights leaders. The young, respected theologian and pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church was elected president of the Montgomery Improvement Association in late 1955, which ran the bus boycott following Rosa Park’s refusal to move to the back of a segregated bus earlier that year. King proved to be a charismatic and eloquent leader and soon moved to the forefront of the larger movement to end legal and social discrimination and segregation in the American South. His philosophy of nonviolent direct action, heavily influenced by Mahatma Gandhi, resonated widely and still does. It’s consistent with key religious sentiments and principles found in King’s and the majority of Americans’ Christianity, as well as other philosophical and religious systems which emphasize both justice and mercy. The nonviolent tactics that King endorsed also kept the movement on such a moral high ground that it stymied would-be white critics who found it necessary to resort to smear campaigns and ad-hominem attacks, including and especially J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI administration. King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech and his ‘Letter From a Birmingham Jail’ are two of the most moving and most influential creations of the American modern Civil Rights Movement, or indeed of any civil rights movement.

King was cut down by an assassin’s bullet on April 4, 1968, outside of his hotel room in Memphis, Tennessee, where he was engaged in worker’s rights activism, another major cause to which he dedicated his life.

Learn more about the complex, flawed, and great Dr. King at:

About Dr. King ~ at The Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change

Envisioning Martin Luther King, Jr. in the Twenty-First Century ~ by Dr. Elwood Watson for Black Perspectives, blog of the African American Intellectual History Society (AAIHS)

I Have A Dream ~ speech by Martin Luther King, Jr.

King, Martin Luther, Jr. (1929-1968) ~ by Clayborne Carson for BlackPast.org

Martin Luther King ~ by the BBC

Martin Luther King, Jr. ~ by David L. Lewis and Clayborne Carson for Encyclopædia Britannica

Martin Luther King and Union Rights ~ by Michael Honey for Clarion, newspaper of PSC/Cuny

Martin Luther King, Jr: An Extraordinary Life ~ a project by The Seattle Times

Martin Luther King Jr.: Leader of Millions in Nonviolent Drive for Racial Justice ~ obituary by Murray Schumach for The New York Times

A Reading of the Letter from Birmingham Jail ~ by Martin Luther King, Jr, read and recorded by The Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity and project participants

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!