Bringing Black History Home

April 15, 2011 | CUNY Matters

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.’ ”

The family had thought James McCune Smith was a white doctor from Scotland, perhaps because Smith — who was denied admission to several American colleges — with the help of abolitionists had earned his bachelor’s, master’s and medical degree from the University of Glasgow, graduating at the top of his class.

But now there was no mistaking the fact that Blau’s great-great-great grandfather Smith was the doctor she had written about, who when he returned to New York City from Scotland had opened what was said to be the nation’s first black pharmacy.

To confirm the relationship, Blau, who lives in New Haven, did further research, including at Cypress Hills Cemetery in Brooklyn, where Smith was buried in 1865. She learned that Smith, who died at 52, had 11 children. Six died in childhood. A daughter and four sons survived to adulthood, and Blau was descended from one of the sons. After Smith’s death, his children and wife passed for white.

“He was pretty light-skinned,” Blau thinks. “His mother was probably mixed, too. She was born a slave in South Carolina. Somehow she made it up to New York with her slavemaster, a merchant. This is what I believe. He never wrote about his father, but he did write things that give you clues.”

Blau, left, at Smith’s grave with Hunter professor Joanne Edey-Rhodes, whose assignment led to surprising discoveries.

After establishing her link to Smith, Blau and her husband visited the Smith family plot at Cypress Hills, near the graves of baseball icon Jackie Robinson and actress Mae West. A book she encountered about famous people buried at the cemetery includes Smith but doesn’t indicate that he was black. She assumes it’s because in the mid-19th Century, “If he was a doctor, he couldn’t be black.” A marker at the gravesite had badly deteriorated so Blau and some family members decided to replace it with a granite tombstone that would be inscribed with a segment of Smith’s introduction to a Frederick Douglass autobiography: “. . . the worst of our institutions, in its worst aspect, cannot keep down energy, truthfulness and earnest struggle for the right.”

Though she’d lost touch with the teacher of her serendipitous black history class, Blau wanted to invite her to the dedication ceremony. She emailed Edey-Rhodes via Hunter’s Africana and Puerto Rican/Latino Studies Department, saying in part: “I was the white girl droning on nervously at the front of the classroom about the Colored Orphan Asylum . . . I just wanted you to know how taking your class literally changed my life . . . I just wanted to give you my heartfelt thanks for teaching that class, introducing me to this great man, and for being so enthusiastic about the subject.”

“I read it and burst into tears,” Edey-Rhodes said. “Her paper was so outstanding I kept it. I cried because it was uncovered history, which is so important to me. I felt it was very spiritual. I’ve had situations where students will tell me that the learning that came from a class had an effect on their life, but to be in a situation where a course became a conduit for someone to find out about their past, it was overwhelming.”

From her own research, Edey-Rhodes believes Smith’s mother was a former slave, but “his father’s race is in question. Some writings say that he was black while others say white. As for his mother, that, too, isn’t absolute. African-Americans were often listed as mulatto on census  records simply based on a lighter complexion. Smith did say that she was self-emancipated.”

James McCune Smith was part of the black community, Edey-Rhodes said. “The thing that was so extraordinary is that before the 1870 census he and his family were mulatto, but after 1870 they were no longer listed as mulatto or colored; all were listed as white. This man was so distin-guished he’s somebody that anybody would want to claim.”

Blau plans to further research her ancestor’s life and keeps finding fascinating tidbits. “He was amazing!” she said. “He ran for the state Senate and got about five votes. He was involved in the Underground Railroad.”

And now that she has renewed her acquaintance with Edey-Rhodes, Blau said: “I would love to take another one of her classes. . . . She so clearly loved her subject. She was passionate about it. She wanted us to know about obscure people. I think she’s a really special person.”