Though these links were first forged by Scotland’s involvement in the slave trade, Black History Month is an opportunity to remember and celebrate the pioneering African Americans who overcame prejudice and hate to create incredible and fascinating legacies.
First launched in 1928, the theme for the USA’s Black History Month 2022 focuses on the importance of Black health and wellness, acknowledging the global legacy of Black scholars and medical practitioners.
Dr. James McCune Smith
One such legacy is that of University of Glasgow graduate Dr. James McCune Smith (1813-1865), who became the first African American to hold a medical degree - which he gained during his time in Glasgow.
Freed from slavery on 4 July 1827, at age 14, by the Emancipation Act of New York, Smith attended the African Free School in Manhattan, where he was described as an "exceptionally bright student".
Upon graduation he applied to Columbia University and Geneva Medical College in New York State but was denied admission due to his race.
Encouraged by a former teacher he went on to apply - and be accepted - to study medicine at the University of Glasgow.
Through abolitionist connections he was welcomed there by members of the London Agency Anti-Slavery Society. According to the historian Thomas M. Morgan, Smith enjoyed the relative racial tolerance in Scotland and England which had legally abolished slavery in 1833.
Smith threw himself into his studies. He graduated at the top of his university class in 1835, staying on in Glasgow to gain a master’s degree in 1836 and a medical degree in 1837.
Armed with these qualifications he returned to New York where he was met with a hero's welcome by his former classmates and teachers. For the next 28 years he worked for the good of his fellow citizens, practising as a doctor and running the first black-owned public pharmacy in the United States.
In 1863 Smith was appointed professor of anthropology at Wilberforce College, Ohio. He died two years later on 17 November 1865 at the age of 52 – only 19 days before ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment, which finally abolished slavery across the United States.
Smith never forgot his time in Scotland, and Glasgow hasn’t forgotten him. In April 2021 The University of Glasgow, his alma mater, opened its new £90.6m James McCune Smith Learning Hub providing state-of-the-art learning and teaching facilities for over 2,500 students.
University Principal, Professor Sir Anton Muscatelli says: "James McCune Smith was truly a pioneer, not only becoming the first African American to gain a medical degree but also one of the leading intellectuals of his time ... The University of Glasgow is proud of our association with his legacy, and it is fitting that we honour it in the naming of this building.
The new James McCune Smith Learning Hub has revolutionised how we deliver learning and teaching support and provides a world-class facility for generations of future students from around the world.
A contemporary of Smith and another African American abolitionist was Frederick Douglass (1818-1895). He was a firm believer in the equality of all peoples whether black, indigenous, female, or immigrant and during his 1846 tour found support and attentive audiences in Scotland.
Born Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey, Douglass escaped enslavement in Maryland to become a national leader of the abolitionist movement. He took his freed name Douglass from a character in Scottish author Sir Walter Scott’s romance The Lady of the Lake.
Douglass visited Scotland in 1846 as part of a near-two-year tour of Britain and Ireland. He stopped first in Glasgow which, despite or perhaps because of, the city benefiting financially from the country’s involvement in slavery and the slave trade, had been home to a vibrant abolitionist movement for many years.
Douglass drew huge crowds to his talks and speeches in Glasgow before heading north to Perth, then south to Ayr; the birthplace of one of his literary heroes Robert Burns. There, Douglass met and spoke with Burns’s sister Isabella Begg.
In all, Douglass spent nearly five months in Scotland; attracting huge crowds in Arbroath, Paisley, Kilmarnock, Fife, and Dundee. He thought Edinburgh the most beautiful city he had ever visited. Douglass was appointed "Scotland's Antislavery agent." Today, a plaque and a mural on Gilmore Place in Edinburgh mark his stay there in 1846.
In a letter home to an abolitionist colleague, he wrote: “I enjoy everything here which may be enjoyed by those of a paler hue – no distinction here.”
Douglass was also a great friend to Dr. McCune Smith, citing him as "the single most important influence on his life.".
Scotland cannot and should not ignore its role in the historic injustices of the transatlantic slave trade and we are determined to acknowledge and learn from our past whilst celebrating the legacy of those African American pioneers, and their many successors, who found and forged a common bond with Scotland.