White descendants honor black ancestor

The white descendants of the first professionally trained African-American physician recently dedicated a tombstone at his recently unmarked grave in New York City.  Dr. James McCune Smith was born to a black mother and white father.  After being denied admission to several American universities, he was accepted to the University of Glasglow in Scotland where he obtained a bachelor degree, a masters degree and a medical degree.

Descendants of 1st black US doctor mark NYC grave

By KAREN MATTHEWS (AP) – Sep 26, 2010

NEW YORK — White descendants of the nation’s first professionally trained African-American doctor gathered in a cemetery on Sunday to dedicate a tombstone at the unmarked grave where he was buried in 1865.

“Right now I feel so connected in a new way, to actually be here,” said Antoinette Martignoni, the 91-year-old great-granddaughter of James McCune Smith. “I take a deep breath, and I thank God, I really do. I am so glad to have lived this long.”

Smith, born in New York City in 1813, wanted to be a doctor but was denied entry to medical schools in the United States. He earned a degree from the University of Glasgow in Scotland, then returned to New York to practice. Besides being a doctor, he was celebrated in his lifetime as a writer and an anti-slavery leader.

The white descendants including Dr. Smith’s 91 year old great granddaughter just recently found out about their relative after Dr. Smith’s great-great-great granddaughter, Greta Blau took a course on the history of blacks in New York.  She found out that the surviving children of Dr. Smith apparently passed for white.

The story of why Smith was nearly overlooked by history and buried in an unmarked grave is in part due to the centuries-old practice of light-skinned blacks passing as white to escape racial prejudice. Smith’s mother had been a slave; his father was white. Three of his children lived to adulthood, and they all apparently passed as white, scholars say.

Greta Blau, Smith’s great-great-great-granddaughter, made the connection after she took a course at Hunter College on the history of blacks in New York. She did some research and realized that James McCune Smith the trailblazing black doctor was the same James McCune Smith whose name was inscribed in a family Bible belonging to Martignoni, her grandmother.

Her first response was, “But he was black. I’m white.”

Blau, of New Haven, Conn., concluded that after Smith’s death, his surviving children must have passed as white, and their children and grandchildren never knew they had a black forbear, let alone such an illustrious one.

It’s good to read that they’re accepting of their ancestor without feeling embarrassed or ashamed.  According to Joanne Edey-Rhodes, the professor to taught the class about the history of blacks in New York:

Joanne Edey-Rhodes, the professor whose course led Blau to discover her ancestor, said Blau had written about Smith in her paper for the course.

“She was writing about this person and didn’t realize that that was her very own ancestor,” Edey-Rhodes said.

Edey-Rhodes, who’s black, said that to be black in America in Smith’s time “was a horrible condition.”

“Black people were a despised group, and to many we still are a despised group in the world,” she said. “I think that it is so important that at this time in history, that a family that is classified as white can say, ‘I have this African-American ancestor,’ and be able to do it without any shame, without having to hide it.”

3 responses

  1. Catherine, I just saw your comment. I don’t know if you will get notification but I would love to talk. Tom same with you. Look me up on Facebook and we can chat!


  2. Not sure but i think i might be related . Also other family members buried at the same axact cemetery . Also graet graet grandmothers maiden name was Smith also from Brocklain New York. Im also white this is so supprising just not sure.

  3. Catherine Slaney

    Would love to confer with you Greta as I have the same family history – I am the great grand daughter of Anderson Ruffin Abbott the first Canadian Black doctor – and we too did not know about this rich black history … please feel free to refer to my book, Family Secrets: Crossing the Colour Lline, Natural History, 2003 – by Catherine Slaney,

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