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  • Dr. James McCune Smith

    ‘McCune Smith’ at 3-5 Duke Street in Glasgow takes its name from Dr. James McCune Smith, the black intellectual and abolitionist who embodies two aspects of the history of the area.

    In the 18th and 19th centuries, Glasgow was complicit in New World slavery through its lucrative trade in sugar, cotton and tobacco. Paradoxically, at the same time, a small group of highly influential philosophers and scholars were changing the way people thought about the way they lived. The Scottish Enlightenment, as it is now known, was a flourishing of intellectual thought based on empiricism that has resonated to the modern day and led Voltaire to remark: ‘It is to Scotland that we look for our idea of civilisation’. Indeed, Frances Hutcheson, Adam Smith and John Millar, scholars at Old College, now the University of Glasgow, laid out the first sustained philosophical critique of chattel slavery in the world.

    This idea of civilisation and equality of men made it possible for James McCune Smith, an African American from a slave background, to study at Glasgow, one of the world’s most prestigious universities, after he had been refused entry to American institutions on account of his race. Enrolled in 1833 at Old College when it stood on High Street, he went on to graduate at the top of his class in 1837. He was the first African American in the world to hold a medical degree, and on his return to New York 16,000 people gathered to receive him.

    ‘…educated in Scotland, and breathing the free air of that country, he came back to his native land with ideas of liberty which placed him in advance of most of his fellow citizens of African descent. He was not only a learned and skilful physician, but an effective speaker, and a keen and polished writer…A brave man himself, he knew how to esteem courage in others’. (Frederick Douglas – American Social Reformer, Orator and Statesman)

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