James McCune Smith was one of the foremost black intellectuals in America, the first to receive a medical degree and the most educated African American before W. E. B. Du Bois. McCune Smith publicly advocated the use of “black” rather than “colored” as a self-description and he, like James Weldon Johnson and other successors, treated racial identities as social constructions and argued that American literature, music, and dance would be shaped and defined by blacks.
John Stauffer, the editor of The Works of James McCune Smith: Black Intellectual and Abolitionist, has organized McCune Smith’s writings around genre and chronology. Stauffer, along with three other distinguished historians will discuss Smith’s life, work, and legacy at The New York Historical Society on Wednesday, April 18th at 6:30 pm. Below is a video from The Historical Society’s current exhibition “New York Divided: Slavery and the Civil War.” The video is of letters written by McCune Smith read by the actor Danny Glover.