James McCune Smith (1813-1865) was an African-American physician, abolitionist, educator, and writer. He was the first African-American to earn a medical degree and become a physician. He was born in New York City, where he attended the African Free School, a public school for the children of slaves and free people of color, which had been founded by the New York Manumission Society, an organization dedicated to the abolition of slavery. Other students at the school who went on to have distinguished careers included Henry Highland Garnet (1815-1882, African-American abolitionist, minister, and educator), Ira Aldridge (1807-1868, African-American actor), Alexander Crummell (1819-1898, African-American minister, missionary, and educator), and Samuel Ringgold Ward (1817-1866, African-American minister, abolitionist, and newspaper editor).
After graduating from the African Free School, McCune Smith applied to Columbia College in New York City and Geneva Medical College, in Geneva, New York, but was unable to gain admission, due to racial discrimination.1 However, with financial assistance from the New York City community, he was able to travel to Scotland to attend the University of Glasgow, where he was awarded a bachelor’s degree in 1835, a master’s degree in 1836, and a medical degree in 1837.2 He returned to New York City in 1837 to start the first general medical and surgical practice by a university-trained African-American physician, and he opened the first pharmacy operated by an African-American.3 He was active in the abolitionist movement, and he worked with Frederick Douglass to establish the National Council of Colored People in 1853. He wrote the introduction to Douglass’ second volume of autobiography, My Bondage and My Freedom (1855). He also published articles in medical journals, and was a founding member of the New York Statistics Society, as well as a member of the American Geographic Society.2 He was appointed a professor of anthropology at Wilberforce College, Ohio in 1863, but died two years later on Long Island, New York in 1865.
The Destiny of the People of Color is a lecture that McCune Smith delivered to The Philomathean Society and The Hamilton Lyceum in 1841. It was published in 1843. (The Philomathean Society is a collegiate literary society that was started at the University of Pennsylvania in 1813. The Hamilton Lyceum was a literary society that was based in New York City.4)
McCune Smith explains that in order for people of color to investigate their destiny, they must have some understanding of their present position in society. The basic truths of this position in society, and thus the basic premises for investigating the destiny of people of color, are: “First. We are a minority held in servitude by a majority. Secondly. That majority simulate a Republican form of Government. Thirdly. We, the minority held in servitude, are distinguished by a different complexion from the majority who hold us in thrall.”5
The social position of people of color in America is unusual, says McCune Smith, insofar as they are held in servitude and yet live in a country that aspires to, or pretends to have, democratic principles of government. However, the proper destiny for people of color is not for them to simply leave the country and flee from oppression, but to remain and struggle against injustice by working to make sure that the American system of government lives up to its democratic principles.
In order to overcome slavery and oppression, people of color must refute the principle that “might makes right,” by showing that “right makes right.”6 The power of the social majority to hold a minority in servitude does not make that majority morally right. The basis of a democratic system of government is that all citizens are recognized to have equal rights.
In order to fulfill their destiny, people of color must think not only of the present, but also of the future. They must consider the welfare of future generations whose rights will be affected by their actions. They must show the moral wrongness of returning evil for evil, by showing the rightness of returning good for evil. Acts of injustice cannot rightfully be answered by further acts of injustice; they must be answered by acts of justice.
McCune Smith quotes the words of the Roman playwright Terence (c. 190 – 159 BCE), “Homo sum humani nil a me alienum puto” (“I am human, and nothing human is alien to me”), which express a sentiment that McCune Smith finds particularly noteworthy, given that Terence was a slave who gained his freedom. McCune Smith regards Terence’s words as an affirmation of the common brotherhood and sisterhood of all humankind. The destinies of all human beings are inextricably intertwined. Thus the destiny of people of color, given their being held in servitude by a social majority that pretends to be democratic in its system of government but deprives them of their rights of citizenship, is to save that system of government from perishing as a result of its own contradictions, and to convert it into a system that is truly democratic.
McCune Smith makes clear that people of color cannot overcome their oppression merely by overthrowing or becoming like their oppressors. Only by affirming the common brotherhood and sisterhood of all humankind can liberty and justice truly be achieved.
The destiny of people of color is a subject also explored by other nineteenth-century abolitionists, including Frederick Douglass (1818-1895), Martin Robison Delany (1812-1885), and Henry Highland Garnet (1815-1882).
Douglass (1849) says that the destiny of people of color and the destiny of white people are tied to each other, and that in order for society as a whole to flourish, both people of color and white people must flourish. White people and people of color can flourish only if they do so together.7
Delany (1854) argues that people of color must be in control of their own political destiny if they are to secure the right to full citizenship. People of color will never secure the right to full citizenship unless everyone has an equal opportunity to participate in government. However, Delany considers it unlikely that there will ever be equality of opportunity in American society, and he therefore advises people of color to consider emigration and the pursuit of nationhood abroad.
Garnet (1848) explains that the destiny of white people and the destiny of people of color are inseparable, insofar as distinctions between white people and people of color will eventually be erased by the advent of a society in which “mixed race” will be the norm. An increasing number of people will be “mixed race,” making it more difficult to separate people into distinct racial groups. Prejudice against people of color, or “colorphobia,” may therefore one day become an anachronism.
1John Stauffer, “Introduction,” in The Works of James McCune Smith: Black Intellectual and Abolitionist, edited by John Stauffer (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), p. xxi.
2Ibid, p. xxi.
3Thomas M. Morgan, “The Education and Medical Practice of Dr. James McCune Smith (1813-1865), First Black American to Hold a Medical Degree,” in Journal of the National Medical Association, Vol. 95, No. 7, July 2003, pp. 603-614.
4William Henry Ferris, The African Abroad: Or, His Evolution in Western Civilization, Volume 2 (New Haven: Tuttle, Morehouse & Taylor Press, 1913) p. 866.
5James McCune Smith “The Destiny of the People of Color (1843)” in The Works of James McCune Smith: Black Intellectual and Abolitionist, edited by John Stauffer (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), p. 50.
6Ibid., p. 52.
7Frederick Douglass, “The Destiny of Colored Americans,” in The North Star, November 16, 1849.
Delany, Martin Robison. “Political Destiny of the Colored Race on the American Continent” (1854), in Martin R. Delany: A Documentary Reader, edited by Robert S. Levine (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003), pp. 245-279.
Garnet, Henry Highland. “The Past and the Present Condition, and the Destiny, of the Colored Race” (Troy, NY: J.C. Kneeland, 1848).