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.
Although scholars have written books about Smith, who set up a medical practice in lower Manhattan and became the resident physician at an orphanage, his descendants knew nothing about him until recently.
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.
Blau contacted all the Smith descendants she could find and invited them to join her Sunday for a ceremony dedicating a handsome tombstone at Smith's grave at Brooklyn's Cypress Hills Cemetery.
Blau's aunt Elizabeth Strazar said she had grown up believing her ethnic heritage was English, Irish, Scottish and French.
"Now I can say I'm English, Irish, African-American and French, which I feel very proud of," she said.
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."
The tombstone dedication was followed by a panel discussion at St. Philip's Episcopal Church in Harlem. Smith was an active member of the church, which was at another location in his lifetime.
The Rev. Craig Townsend, an Episcopal priest and scholar, said Smith's faith in God bolstered his belief that human beings are equal. Townsend passed out copies of an 1850 letter Smith had written to a friend after the death of his 5-year-old daughter.
"After a year of ailment, at times painful and distressing, always obscure, and which she bore with childlike patience, it pleased God to take her home to the Company of Cherubs who continually do Praise Him," Smith wrote.
"This is beautiful," Townsend said.
Dr. Vanessa Northington Gamble, a medical doctor and historian at George Washington University who has championed equal medical treatment for blacks, noted that Smith wrote articles in medical journals and the popular press debunking notions of black inferiority that were mainstream in his time.
"As early as 1859, Dr. McCune Smith said that race was not biological but was a social category," Gamble said. "I feel that I am standing on the shoulders of Dr. James McCune Smith."