The McCune Smith cafe

Hello, it’s Tom here. In today’s People Make Glasgow post I’d like to introduce the McCune Smith Cafe and Dr. James McCune Smith, the important 19th Century African-American abolitionist, physician, educator and intellectual, after whom the cafe is named.

Glasgow’s remarkable nineteenth-century growth was due to imperial trade. That Glasgow was built on tobacco and sugar is fairly well known, but the association of the city’s nineteenth century wealth with the slave trade and colonial slave labour has, until relatively recently, been far less widely acknowledged. As historian Stephen Mullen puts it:“Scotland’s role in the slave trade has long been a contentious issue. In modern times, a myth of denial has evolved. It has been almost casually accepted that “It Wisnae Us”.

Over the last decade, however there has been renewed interest in bringing the truth about Glasgow’s role in the slave trade and colonial slavery to light. Written through the fabric of Glasgow—from street names, to grand buildings and memorials—reminders of the city’s imperial legacy abound. If you just take the time to look around you on a short walk around the city centre, you’ll encounter numerous reminders of the abiding presence of our colonial past.

Jamaica Street

Jamaica Street opened in 1763 at the height of the rum and sugar trade with the West Indies and connected Glasgow merchants with the Broomielaw Quayside – the dock where the raw tobacco and sugar from Caribbean plantations was landed.


And Customs House — where duties were charged on imported plantation commodities — sits just by the quayside.

Customs House

Around the corner on James Watt Street the imposing edifice of the Tobacco Warehouse looms.

Tobacco Warehouse

Tobacco was the principal slave-produced commodity imported into Glasgow and underpinned the fortunes of the influential group of merchants widely known as the Tobacco Lords. Many of these men have given their names to our familiar streets and thoroughfares – such as Archibald Ingram, Andrew Buchanan and John Glassford.

Ingram Street

Tobacco and sugar merchant, William Cunninghame of Lainshaw, meanwhile, was the owner of the grand mansion which later became the city’s Gallery of Modern Art . . .

Gallery of Modern Art

. . . and inside Glasgow’s Cathedral, you’ll find elaborate stained glass panels celebrating the memory of merchant slave owners Sir James Stirling of Keir and Alexander Spiers of Elderslie.

While the human costs of empire remained invisible to many ordinary Glaswegians, the wealth of local merchant families like Stirling and Spiers was built on the exploitation of enslaved peoples. Searching the Legacies of British Slave-Ownership Database at UCL reveals 77 individuals living in Glasgow who submitted claims for compensation to the British Government when colonial slavery was abolished in 1833.

Dr James McCune Smith

James McCune Smith was born a slave in New York City in 1813, and freed under the emancipation act of 1827. Educated at the New York African Free School no.2, McCune Smith was a determined scholar, studying classical languages in his spare time, with a long-held dream of studying medicine. Yet, despite his learning and acumen, McCune Smith was refused admission to Columbia and Geneva colleges because of the colour of his skin. New York City in the 1830s was not an easy place to be a black scholar: the city was riven by racist violence, as white mobs, attacked abolitionists and burned black homes and schools. Denied opportunity at home, McCune Smith began to look further afield, and when the University of Glasgow (a world-class academy with the humanist principles of the Scottish Enlightenment at its heart) learned of his situation they offered the promising young man a scholarship to study medicine. Black community leaders in New York City raised enough money to support him, and McCune Smith sailed to Scotland to begin a new student life.

Saltmarket, by Glasgow photographer, Thomas Annan

Alongside his Glasgow medical degrees, McCune Smith took classes in logic and moral philosophy. He studied chemistry and botany, practiced surgery and midwifery, completed a year-long infirmary residence, and, after finishing his B.A and M.A degrees finally graduated as an M.D at the top of his class, the first African-American to hold a medical degree. In Glasgow, James McCune Smith really thrived. In the words of John Stauffer, in Glasgow “he experienced a virtual absence of racism and began to understand the emotional and psychic effects of American racial prejudice.” Glasgow shaped McCune Smith’s politics as well as his education. Much of the city’s political activity was driven by abolitionist groups, such as the Glasgow Ladies Emancipation Society, established by Jane Smeal, and the Ladies New Anti Slavery Society of Glasgow whose direct tactics shaped the Scottish suffrage movement later in the century. In 1833, McCune Smith became an influential charter member of the Glasgow Emancipation Society and from then until his death in 1865, he dedicated his life to combatting racism and promoting racial equality.


McCune Smith returned home to New York to much acclaim in 1837 and, with his friend Frederick Douglass, formed the National Council of Colored People, the first permanent American organisation protecting the rights of black people. In his incisive writing, he poured scorn on the racist pseudo-science of phrenology; described homeopathy as “deadly quackery”; and, as a founding member of the New York Statistics Society used the scientific analyses that had been part of his medical training to refute the racist ideas underpinning American segregation. He wrote numerous articles, including the introduction to Frederick Douglass’s My Bondage and My Freedom and his famous lecture The Destiny of the People of Color (1843), in which he argued that the destiny of African Americans was to hold the American constitution accountable to the democratic ideals upon which it had been founded. In 1855 McCune Smith formed the Radical Abolition Party, arguing for an immediate end to slavery, full suffrage for men and women, and the redistribution of land to eliminate poverty. In the warm words of his friend Frederick Douglass, “no man more thoroughly understands the whole struggle between freedom and slavery than does Dr. Smith, and his heart is as broad as his understanding.”

Yet, after his death in 1865, McCune Smith’s identity and work quickly passed into obscurity. Both McCune Smith and his wife, Malvina Barnet, were of biracial descent. Their children were pale skinned, and like many of their contemporaries, in an effort to escape the era’s endemic racism, they decided to pass in white society, quietly disowning their African-American inheritance. McCune Smith was buried in an unmarked grave in Brooklyn and later descendants remained oblivious to their famous ancestry until the early 20th Century, when his great-great-great-grandaughter, Greta Blau, uncovered her family’s genealogy. A new tombstone acknowledging McCune Smith and his remarkable achievements was finally commissioned in 2010, and Glasgow University has also recently honoured its famous alumnus with a new James Mc Cune Smith scholarship and the James McCune Smith Learning Hub, due to open its doors next year, as part of the institution’s reparations programme.

At the McCune Smith cafe

The McCune Smith Café
Around the time of the bicentenary of Britain’s abolition of the slave trade, the Glasgow Coalition for Racial Equality and Rights (CRER) began to organise guided walks of Glasgow exploring the city’s colonial and imperial connections and it was on one of these walks (guided by Stephen Mullen), that brothers, Simon and Dan Taylor, learned about Dr. James McCune Smith. The fact that McCune Smith was not better known or more widely celebrated in Glasgow came as a great surprise to the young Hebridean brothers, and they decided to commemorate this forgotten Glaswegian alumnus in their new ethical business venture – and in 2013 the McCune Smith Cafe was born.

Dan takes a break

The McCune Smith Cafe sits on Duke Street, opposite the site of the original “Old College”, where Dr. James McCune Smith attended his lectures, and completed his medical training. The thriving cafe is owned by brothers Simon and Dan Taylor and is run by Dan, his partner Harrie (Angharad), and their small friendly team.


As soon as you walk through the cafe doors it is immediately apparent this place has a strong sense of identity that’s dramatically different to that of surrounding branded eateries.

From the small gallery space featuring work of local artists to the wee library stocked with books about Scottish history and ethical food production, there is an obvious sense of pride in what a cafe in Glasgow might be. Where else could you buy “Enlightened Sandwiches” named after of the first woman marine engineer (Victoria Drummond) or Glaswegian anarchist Ethel MacDonald (aka the “Scots Scarlet Pimpernel”)? Serving up fresh, locally sourced produce to the good folk in Glasgow’s East End, Dan describes Harrie as the genius behind the food they make. From vegan breakfasts to Hebridean brunches, the food that Harrie prepares is made with love and care with the explicit goal of celebrating the best in seasonal Scottish produce.

Harrie’s homemade syrup

The McCune Smith Cafe ethos has its origins in Dan and Simon’s Hebridean childhoods, and Harrie’s background among the agricultural and fishing communities of the Ross of Mull. All three grew up in places closely connected to the changing seasons, where cooking and growing local food was a key part of everyday life. The food of the McCune Smith Cafe is designed to make the best of Scotland’s seasonal larder, celebrating locally sourced ingredients and artisanal production.

In contrast to the homogeneous snacks offered by big chains, the McCune Smith cafe seeks to celebrate provenance, promote heritage varieties, and to offer a diverse and definitively local menu. From milk to flour, from coffee to vegetables, the quality and sustainability of Scottish ingredients is at the heart of all of everything the McCune Smith Cafe make and purvey.

Dan describes himself as being just like his dad, who often railed against “big business” in food: “which is not driven by nutritional quality or great flavour but by quantity and cheapness.  The result of this is a reduction in consumer choice, a tremendous cost to the bio-diversity of the countryside and lowering of livestock welfare standards”

A clear demonstration of Dan and Harrie’s commitment to local and sustainable food production is the McCune Smith Cafe allotment. Inspired, in part, by Ron Finley’s guerrilla gardening movement, the Cafe’s plot in nearby Petershill provides a range of seasonal fruit, herbs and vegetables from raspberries to spinach, potatoes, peas and beans. Whilst Dan describes this as an ongoing battle with pigeons, foxes and slugs, this hands-on approach allows the McCune Smith Cafe to grow things you just can’t buy in a supermarket. Currently thriving through the Scottish summer is Sutherland Kale, a tasty heritage variety which was recently brought back from the brink of extinction by Vicky Schilling of Ullapool. The allotment also provides an ideal way to recycle organic waste from the Cafe and from other local business, which is put to good use as fertiliser for Dan’s crops.

recycling coffee grounds on the allotment

The provenance and sustainability of the raw produce supplied to the McCune Smith Cafe by other small Scottish businesses is also deeply important to the food they make. For example, the milk used at McCune Smith Cafe is provided by Mossgiel Farm, a completely organic enterprise which recently escaped the control of a supermarket-driven dairy industry by providing non-homogenised milk directly to its customers. It has now become the milk of choice for almost all independent specialist coffee shops in Glasgow, and recently won the prestigious “future foods” award from BBC’s Farming Today.

Equally, the coffee expertly brewed at the McCune Smith Cafe is supplied by a local ethical coffee roaster, Dear Green (who pride themselves on producing fully traceable coffee beans and about whom you’ll hear more about in a future People Make Glasgow post). Dan even collects the waste coffee grain husks from Dear Green to use as a fertiliser on the McCune Smith Cafe’s allotment!

The bread baked in-house at McCune Smith is made using heritage wheats sourced from Scotland the Bread a company which has worked to save a numerous heritage wheat strains from the brink of extinction and the cafe also supports Bread Share. With its guiding commitment to sustainable production, the McCune Smith Cafe provides an impressive exemplar of how even the smallest of Scottish businesses might thrive on doing things differently.

The fact that the McCune Smith cafe celebrates a great African-American intellectual, medic and campaigner has brought about some interesting international interactions. Perhaps most noteworthy is the day that US ambassador, Matthew Barzun (descendant of McCune Smith’s abolitionist compatriot, Lucretia Mott), came to see what the cafe had to offer. As the ambassador arrived, Dan was instructed to keep things as “normal” as possible, even in the midst of secret service security sweeps and the arrival of numerous diplomatic vehicles with blacked out windows. Barzun really enjoyed his visit, and the personal letter he wrote to thank Dan for his hospitality is still proudly displayed on the back wall of the McCune Smith Cafe.

McCune Smith staff

So, if you’d like to find out more about Glasgow’s imperial past, why not join a guided city walk, or trace your own route around our historic streets, not forgetting to make an East End stop in the McCune Smith cafe. There, in the cafe’s wee library, you might dip into Stephen Mullen’s important book It Wisnae Us; find out more about the city’s tobacco lords and sugar barons; brush up on your Scottish Enlightenment history, and pause to read James McCune Smith’s own collected works. And, as you learn much more about one of our city’s most important black intellectuals, you’ll be able to enjoy local food and drink produced for you by a really inspiring, innovative, and, in so many different senses – ethical – Glasgow business.

Thanks to Dan and Harrie and the staff of the McCune Smith cafe

Useful links and resources

McCune Smith Cafe

James McCune Smith biography page at Glasgow University

Legacies of Slavery in Glasgow Museums

Glasgow University Slavery and Abolition report

Glasgow University has just signed a memorandum of understanding with the University of the West Indies as part of its programme of reparatory justice

Rediscovering the Life and Legacy of James McCune Smith a video from the New York Historical Society

Stephen Mullen, It Wisnae Us: The Truth about Glasgow and Slavery (2009)

John Stauffer, ed, The Works of James McCune Smith (2006)