University to honour first African American medical graduate James McCune Smith

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Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Sam Doak
Reporter

This decision comes as the University acknowledges its past links with slavery, aiming to provide “reparative justice”

The University of Glasgow has announced that the Learning Hub is to be named in honour of James McCune Smith, the first African American to be awarded a degree in medicine. Due to open by September 2019, the James McCune Smith Learning Hub will provide both teaching and study space for approximately 2500 students. The building will reportedly cost the university £90 million and is being built as part of the institution’s campus redevelopment scheme.

James McCune Smith was born into slavery and was freed only when the practice was outlawed by the state of New York in 1827. Following his emancipation, Smith applied to study medicine at a number of American universities but was refused on racial grounds. A subsequent application made to the University of Glasgow was accepted and in 1837 he became the first African American ever to receive a degree in medicine.

Upon graduating from the University, Smith returned to New York and spent close to twenty years working as a doctor at an orphanage for children of colour. As a leading figure in the abolitionist movement, Smith aided in the founding of the National Council for Coloured People alongside his contemporary Frederick Douglas. Smith’s medical training had a profound impact on his work as an advocate for African Americans. Over the course of his life, he would write numerous articles challenging unscientific and derogatory sentiments held by many at the time regarding the capabilities of African Americans.

Sir Anton Muscatelli, vice chancellor and principal of the University of Glasgow, provided comment on the recent decision, stating: “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 University’s recent announcement comes following revelations that the institution received vast sums of money from those involved in the slave trade. In September the University revealed that it had accepted donations amounting to the present day equivalent of between £16.7 million and £198 million. These donations have been shown to have stemmed from the institution’s patrons’ involvement in both the slave trade itself and industries that relied on the exploitation of enslaved peoples.

In response to September’s revelations, the University committed itself to a reparative justice program. This will reportedly include the establishment of a centre dedicated to the study of slavery as well as the installation of a memorial on campus to the victims of the practice.

The Vice Chancellor addressed the relationship between the University’s recent announcement and September’s revelations, saying: “This [the University’s decision regarding the naming of the learning hub] is also consistent with actions agreed in our recent report, to provide reparative justice due to the University’s historical links with racial slavery, and emphasises our commitment to that programme.”