In 1963 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in front of a crowd of demonstrators and announced his dream to a nation. He spoke of the end of racism and a nation where all people, of all races, could live together in equality and harmony. He spoke with conviction and the oratory skill of a southern pastor, a profession that ran in his family.
Dr. King’s speech and the march that preceded it commanded the attention of the entire nation. By the time of this speech, Dr. King was already the most notable civil rights activist in the U.S. However, there were those that preceded him. Those who were not as well-known but still warrant recognition.
In honor of black history month, I would like to share with you the stories of two African-American Pharmacists who, whether they realized it or not, paved the road that Dr. King and those protestors marched upon that day.
One hundred and fifty years before Dr. King turned to the crowd at the Lincoln Memorial a child was born in New York City. A baby boy to be named James McCune Smith. His mother was a former slave that had worked to purchase her freedom. His father was either a former slave, freed by New York’s Emancipation Act, or a white merchant. (I have found different accounts of his paternal parentage.)
Growing up Smith was one of the brightest students in the African Free School. However, his intelligence didn’t stop him from being discriminated against. This discrimination caused him to flee to Europe after school for opportunities in higher education. There he was accepted into the University of Glasgow.
In 1837 he earned a medical degree, becoming the first African-American to be awarded a degree in medicine. After a short time working in France, Smith returned to the United States, where he was regarded as somewhat of a hero to the black community. It wasn’t long after his return that he became an anti-slavery and anti-racism organizer, orator and writer.
He also started a medical practice on West Broadway in New York. Shortly thereafter, he moved the practice just down the street and combined it with a pharmacy. It was the first African-American owned and operated pharmacy, and it served both black and white patients.
It was in the library in the back of this pharmacy that he met with fellow abolitionists, Frederick Douglass, Gernt Smith, and John Brown. These men formed the Radical Abolitionist Party, and in this library many escaping slaves found refuge.
Smith practiced medicine for nearly 25 years, mostly at the Free Negro Orphan Asylum. In 1863 he moved to Ohio to teach anthropology at Wiberforce College. Two years later, at the age of 52, Smith died of heart disease only a few weeks after the Thirteenth Amendment passed – effectively abolishing slavery.
Smith used his knowledge and education much like Dr. King would do over a century later. He was best known as an abolitionist and less so as a physician and pharmacist.
A little more than thirty years Aftr Smith’s death, Anna Louise James was born in Hartford, Connecticut to a former Virginia plantation slave. By this time the Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments had all be passed for over 25 years, but equality was still far from being reached between whites and blacks and men and women.
Like Smith, James dedicated much of her early life to education. And like Smith she faced bigotry, and now sexism and the social standard, along the way. However, she persevered and became the first African-American woman to graduate from Brooklyn’s College of Pharmacy in 1908. Anna, like Dr. King, chose to pursue a career that ran in the family.
When she left college to work at a pharmacy in Hartford, she also became the first female African-American pharmacist in Connecticut. In 1911 she left Hartford to work at Peter Lane’s (her brother-in-law) pharmacy. Lane Pharmacy was located on Pennywise Lane in Old Saybrook, a predominantly white community where Anna had received her high school education.
When Lane was called upon to fight in World War I, he left Anna in charge of the pharmacy. In 1917 upon his return, he accepted a position with Sisson Drug Company in Hartford. Anna stayed with the pharmacy, becoming sole owner in 1922 and renaming it to James Pharmacy.
Anna lived upstairs and kept the pharmacy open seven days per week. She only closed for half a day on Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day. She managed the pharmacy until she retired in 1967 at the age of 81. She remained in the upstairs residence until her death in 1977.
She never married or had children of her own, so the community’s many condolences fell on Anna’s nieces. They were filled with wonderful stories of “Miss James,” her kindness and generosity.
Unlike King and Smith, Anna was not a known civil rights activist, and I’ve found no evidence that she was a member of the suffragist movement. However, her courage to do what society told her she couldn’t and shouldn’t do helped to pave the road to equality for blacks and women.