May 22, 2024

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James McCune Smith – 1st African American Doctor & Pharmacist In the USA

Once upon a time in Black Entrepreneur History was a man named James McCune Smith who was the 1st African American to earn a medical degree as well as the 1st African American to open a pharmacy in the United States of America.

Born to a formerly enslaved African American South Carolinian mother name Lavina Smith[1] on April 18, 1813 in New York, James McCune Smith started his life free because his mother was also free. His father was a white man[2] whose name is unknown and who James McCune Smith never knew because he never claimed him.

He was able to gain an education at the New York African Free School[3], however, because of segregation and racism in the country at the time, he was forbidden to enroll at any universities to study medicine. He wanted to become a doctor.

Education & Career

Not allowing racism in his native country of the United States of America to stop him, he traveled all the way across the ocean to Glasgow University in Scotland to earn his doctorate and became a medical doctor with a formal education. This made him the 1st African American to earn a medical degree.

His degree was earned while slavery was still legal in the United States, and his heart was for his African American people. Therefore, when he came back to New York from Europe, he began to work as an abolitionist while at the same time founding the 1st African American pharmacy in the United States of America on 93 West Broadway in 1837. He was the young age of 24.

At one point, Dr. James McCune Smith was called to the home of a woman who had been beaten to death by her husband and told of what conditions he found her in under oath along with others who actually heard the physical violence. His testimony was quoted as such below:

I was called to the deceased on Saturday night by a woman; Johnson came the next day, and said that his wife was very ill. Not being able to find the place, I went next morning when I found the deceased lying on a cot dying; she had a black eye. Her breathing and appearance struck me as that of a person dying from the effects of alcohol, or some depressing poison. There was no stertorous breathing; her pulse was very slow. I asked Johnson how she came with the black eye. He said she had fallen off the bed while drunk.”[4]

New-York Tribune (New York, New York)23 Sep 1857, Wed Page 7

Radical Abolitionist

His pharmacy catered to an integrated public, however, when the pharmacy wasn’t open, it was the place where he and his fellow abolitionists got together to plan an end to slavery and help Black people who escaped slavery as much as they could. He did this as part of the Radical Abolitionists which he co-founded and was President[4].

The Radical Abolitionists believed that slavery “invades all natural rights” and voted to amend their Declaration to state such during the Anti-Slavery Convention at Syracuse on June 28, 1955. They believe that “the institution of human slavery is unconstitutional, illegal and wicked, wherever it may exist.”[5]

As President of the Radical Abolitionists, he and the other members chose to push toward forming themselves as a national Party by the belief that the Constitution allowed it[6].

Smith was a well-known speaker and at conventions, he was one of the most chosen to speak. The Anniversary of West Indian Emancipation in Flushing, Long Island, New York chose James McCure Smith as the orator who “gave a graphic history of the progress of British public opinion previous to the decision of Parliament in favor of emancipation.[7]


Dr. Smith was also an author. His books are as follows:

  • A Lecture on the Haytien Revolutions
  • The Destiny of the People of Color
  • Essays and editorials in newspaper publications and magazines

Marriage and Children

Dr. James McCune Smith married a New Yorker named Malvina Smith and they went on to have six children – James Ward Smith, Guy B Smith, Maude Mary Smith, Frederick Douglass Smith, Donald B. Smith, John Murray Smith. During his life and career, his mother Lavina never left his side as she lived with the family at their home the entire step of the way according to every census to the time of his death.


Dr. James McCune Smith passed away on November 17, 1865 in New York and was buried in Cypress Hills Cemetery in Brooklyn, New York[8].

Akirim Press


Year: 1850; Census Place: New York Ward 5, New York, New York; Roll: 537; Page: 62a

[2]The Palm Beach Post (West Palm Beach, Florida) 27 Sep 2010, Mon Page A002

[3]New York Historical Society

[4]New-York Tribune (New York, New York)23 Sep 1857, Wed Page 7

[5]New York Daily Herald (New York, New York) 28 Jun 1855, Thu Page 4

[6]The Buffalo Commercial (Buffalo, New York) 24 Oct 1855, Wed Page 3

[7]Brooklyn Evening Star (Brooklyn, New York)02 Aug 1862, Sat Page 3

[8]Find A Grave. Find A Grave.

Year 1855;Census of the state of New York, for 1855. Microfilm. Various County Clerk Offices, New York.

Year: 1860; Census Place: New York Ward 5 District 2, New York, New York; Page: 585; Family History Library Film: 803790

Picture of James McCure Smith Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons