NEW YORK — White descendants of the nation's first African-American professionally trained physician 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 because of racism. He earned a degree from the University of Glasgow in Scotland, then returned to New York to practice. Besides being a physician, 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 black people passing as white to escape racial prejudice. Smith's mother was black and 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 black people 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 tombstone at Smith's grave at Brooklyn's Cypress Hills Cemetery.