Maritcha Lyons, James McCune Smith's Backroom

Dr. Smith was the son of a slave mother who had been given her freedom to make her eligible to testify in a court of justice. Just when she landed in New York City with her son I cannot state, but he was young enough to go to school in Mulberry Street and was the playmate of my parents, Albro Lyons and Mary Marshall. Later their friendship was continued and cemented by his being their best man and the godfather of all of their children.

No details can be given by me relative to his preparation for the medical profession in which he had a high rank save that he went to Scotland to finish. It may be referred that the family with which his mother was connected was his patron.

Upon establishing himself as a physician he owned a drug store at 55 West Broadway. There were drilled in this store men who afterward became successful pharmacists, among those were George Phillips, Peter W. Ray and Philip A. White.

The store had a backroom which became historical. The doctor was visited daily by men, young and old, not only by the most intelligent colored residents but men of other localities. This room was a rallying centre; it had its library and in there were held discussions and debates on all the topics of the day. The visitors had public spirit an erected constructive force that molded public sentiment which had much to do in bringing about a more favorable state of things affecting the colored people of New York State. It was indeed a host who sort out the doctor, some for advice and consultations, some for relaxation others for sheer admiration. Games of chess were frequently played, many sober, serious hard thinking men became tireless in their enthusiasm to master the intricacies of a game that demanded time, thought, skill and insight with human nature.

Here the observer learned to discriminate between words and ideas to distinguish between filmy illusions and laudable ambitions. Here was learned what pleased men, what drew them together; what interested excited or annoyed them. What aroused in them emotion, sentiment, passion. That was peculiar but excellent training, and the doctor was fully qualified to preside over such an informal academy. Doubtless church affairs were as fully thrashed out as were the social and political aspects of the times.

From: Maritcha Lyons, “Memories of Yesterdays, All of Which I Saw and Part of Which I Was—An Autobiography”