For James McCune Smith, Racism Was All Over Anthropology

Posted in Anthropology, Articles, Biography, History, Media Archive on 2021-08-18 01:13Z by Steven

For James McCune Smith, Racism Was All Over Anthropology


Livia Gershon
Nashua, New Hampshire

James McCune Smith via Wikimedia Commons/Jonathan Aprea

What if the creation story of anthropology isn’t exclusively about white men classifying people as primitive?

In the first half of the nineteenth century, intellectuals working in the nascent field of anthropology sought to divide humanity into more and less civilized races, debating whether these differences were due to biology or deep-seated cultural patterns. At least that’s what Americans today tend to remember about the early days of the discipline. But, anthropologist Thomas C. Patterson writes, that may be because historians studying anthropology have selectively ignored other viewpoints within the field. To counteract this tendency, Patterson invites us to learn about the Black anthropologist James McCune Smith.

McCune Smith was born enslaved in New York City. He became legally free as a teenager in 1827 under New York state’s Emancipation Act. He apprenticed as a blacksmith while studying Latin and Greek. Denied admission to Columbia University because of his race, he attended the University of Glasgow and went on to become a medical doctor…

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New recognition for first black U.S. doctor with medical degree

Posted in Articles, Biography, Health/Medicine/Genetics, History, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2013-10-12 02:31Z by Steven

New recognition for first black U.S. doctor with medical degree

American Medical News

Kevin B. O’Reilly

Dr. James McCune Smith’s descendants unveiled a new headstone in a ceremony to commemorate his achievements as a physician, essayist and abolitionist.

The New York City burial site of the nation’s first black medical degree-holder received a new headstone—one provided by his white descendants in a recent public ceremony.

Dr. James McCune Smith received his medical degree at the University of Glasgow in Scotland in 1837, forced to go overseas for his education due to U.S. colleges’ racist admissions policies. Historians say the training provided at European medical schools at that time was, ironically, superior to that offered in the U.S.

Greta Blau, Dr. Smith’s great-great-great-granddaughter, learned that she was descended from the doctor after finding his name inscribed in a family Bible. She recognized the name from a history paper she had written years earlier in college.

After confirming the family connection through genealogical research, Blau learned that Dr. Smith’s five surviving children passed, lived and identified as white in society after he died in 1865.

Dr. Smith treated both black and white patients in New York City. He was the first black doctor to write a medical case report—presented to the New York Medical and Surgical Society in 1840.

He also was the first black physician to have a medical scientific paper published, in the New York Journal of Medicine in 1844, and was a prominent essayist who attacked slavery and racial theories positing blacks’ inferiority. He was a friend of Frederick Douglass and wrote the introduction to his 1855 autobiography…

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Bringing Black History Home

Posted in Articles, Biography, History, Media Archive on 2013-10-09 15:28Z by Steven

Bringing Black History Home

CUNY Newswire
The City University of New York

Antoinette Martignoni, left, and her granddaughter Greta Blau hold a family Bible that contains the name of their ancestor, Dr. James McCune Smith, the nation’s first African American physician at Martignoni’s home in Fairfield, Conn., Thursday, Sept. 23, 2010. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)

The name James McCune Smith meant little to Greta Blau in 1996, when she briefly mentioned him in a research paper she wrote for a History of Blacks in New York City course designed and taught by Joanne Edey-Rhodes.

Blau’s paper for the Hunter College class focused on the Colored Orphan Asylum, founded on Fifth Avenue to assist homeless and destitute African-American children. She noted that Smith, the asylum’s doctor, was the nation’s first professionally trained African-American physician — as well as an eminent 19th century abolitionist and author whose friends included antislavery movement leader Frederick Douglass.

Little did Blau know that the assignment would years later lead her on an engrossing journey into her own family’s roots.

It began one day in 2003, at her grandmother’s house in Connecticut, when she was looking through the family Bible that an Irish relative had. “The name was in there as the father of my great-grandmother’s second husband,” she said. “I knew I had heard that name before. I went home and Googled the name, and he came up. I said, ‘That can’t be the right person, because I’m white.’”…

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A Hideous Monster of the Mind: American Race Theory in the Early Republic (review)

Posted in Articles, Book/Video Reviews, History, Media Archive, United States on 2013-01-09 20:40Z by Steven

A Hideous Monster of the Mind: American Race Theory in the Early Republic (review)

Civil War History
Volume 52, Number 2, June 2006
pages 180-182
DOI: 10.1353/cwh.2006.0034

Michael A. Morrison, Associate Professor of History
Purdue University

A Hideous Monster of the Mind: American Race Theory in the Early Republic. By Bruce Dain. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002. Pp. 321.)

A Hideous Monster of the Mind is a closely argued, nuanced, and sophisticated study of the intellectual history of the construction of race in the United States from the Revolution to the Civil War. Bruce Dain positions this fine study in multiple contexts. Dain first broadens his analysis by demonstrating that the intellectual construction of race took place as part of a transatlantic dialogue among European naturalists and philosophers on the one side and American theorists—politicians, religious figures, and scientists—on the other. Thus Dain’s consideration of the multiple and plastic meanings of race reflect and extend evolving Anglo-European theories of humankind and the differences with in it. Finally in what is the most significant contribution of an important book on race, Dain integrates black theorists and writers such as Phyllis Wheatley, Prince Saunders, David Walker, Hosea Easton, and James McCune Smith into his description of “black people’s own sense of blackness” (ix).

Dain is careful not to allow his analysis to collapse into neat “black” and “white” polarities of racial thinking. Nor does his narrative of a developing understanding—or more precisely misunderstanding—of racial differences move along a straightforward, linear path. Theories of the origin and meaning of racial differences were various, inconsistent, and often at odds with one another, and they moved along interconnected lines of communication among white elites, black activists, naturalists, physicians, philosophers, abolitionists, and apologists for slavery. Central to their considerations and definitions of race and racial differences was “whether slaves and ex-slaves were capable of citizenship in a republic?” Implicit in this broad proposition was the impact of slavery on the enslaved, the plasticity or immutability of human nature, and underlying questions of reproduction, heredity, history (natural and human), and race mixing.

Thomas Jefferson provides a point of departure. He believed that blackness was a God-given natural entity (a “distinct race”) and that, accordingly, American slavery was an intractable problem: blacks—free and freed—”were too inferior and resentful to be citizens of Virginia” (31). Not only would blacks not have a place or role in the republic, according to Jefferson and others of his mind they posed an internal threat to its harmony. White reaction to the Haitian Revolution, which constitutes one of the strongest and most original chapters in the work, broadened those concerns and fears to encompass free blacks and mulattos.

Nineteenth-century African Americans who engaged race theory begged to differ. As their writings emerged in the 1820s—primarily in the African-American newspaper Freedom’s Journal and David Walker’s Appeal . . . to the Collective Citizens of the World—they dilated on blacks’ “enduring redemptive Christianity and sense of race as defined by exploitation and suffering in the modern Atlantic world” (113). Aware of the white authors, their writings were both informed by and a reaction to those racial theories. Stressing the mutability of the human condition, an author writing in Freedom’s Journal, concluded that race was a category that was a function of white prejudice. The author turned Jefferson’s argument on its pointed head, rejecting any relationship between skin color and intelligence or its obverse skin color and degradation. David Walker went further damning New World slavery as the worst form of debasement and insisting that there were only two racial entities: “blacks and whites, the two poles of human virtue and venality” (144).

Building on but taking a slightly different trajectory from Walker, Hosea Easton began with the assumption that monogenism was a given and that any perceived differences among humans were a heritable variation in response to the environment. Slavery, he concluded, not skin color or immutable racial differences produced prejudice. Thus as a disease of…

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A Hideous Monster of the Mind: American Race Theory in the Early Republic

Posted in Books, History, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Monographs, United States on 2013-01-09 04:40Z by Steven

A Hideous Monster of the Mind: American Race Theory in the Early Republic

Harvard University Press
February 2003
334 pages
6 x 9-15/16 inches
Hardcove ISBN: 9780674009462

Bruce Dain, Associate Professor of History
University of Utah

The intellectual history of race, one of the most pernicious and enduring ideas in American history, has remained segregated into studies of black or white traditions. Bruce Dain breaks this separatist pattern with an integrated account of the emergence of modern racial consciousness in the United States from the Revolution to the Civil War. A Hideous Monster of the Mind reveals that ideas on race crossed racial boundaries in a process that produced not only well-known theories of biological racism but also countertheories that were early expressions of cultural relativism, cultural pluralism, and latter-day Afrocentrism.

From 1800 to 1830 in particular, race took on a new reality as Americans, black and white, reacted to postrevolutionary disillusionment, the events of the Haitian Revolution, the rise of cotton culture, and the entrenchment of slavery. Dain examines not only major white figures like Thomas Jefferson and Samuel Stanhope Smith, but also the first self-consciously “black” African-American writers. These various thinkers transformed late-eighteenth-century European environmentalist “natural history” into race theories that combined culture and biology and set the terms for later controversies over slavery and abolition. In those debates, the ethnology of Samuel George Morton and Josiah Nott intertwined conceptually with important writing by black authors who have been largely forgotten, like Hosea Easton and James McCune Smith. Scientific racism and the idea of races as cultural constructions were thus interrelated aspects of the same effort to explain human differences.

In retrieving neglected African-American thinkers, reestablishing the European intellectual background to American racial theory, and demonstrating the deep confusion “race” caused for thinkers black and white, A Hideous Monster of the Mind offers an engaging and enlightening new perspective on modern American racial thought.

Table of Contents

  • Preface
  • 1. The Face of Nature
  • 2. Culture and the Persistence of Race
  • 3. The Horrors of St. Domingue
  • 4. The Mutability of Human Affairs
  • 5. Conceiving Universal Equality
  • 6. Black Immediatism
  • 7. The New Ethnology
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