Travis Johnson, MD’1908, is regarded as the first African-American to graduate from Columbia University’s College of Physicians & Surgeons. But decades before Johnson earned his degree, four other African-American men studied at P&S. Three students attended classes in the 1830s and 1840s under the auspices of the American Colonization Society, which sought the emigration of free black Americans to Liberia. (Read their stories in Columbia Medicine magazine.)
The story of the fourth–James Parker Barnett–is not well-known, and involves a contentious legal battle fought in the New York Supreme Court. The following summary of the case is based on a forthcoming article by former CUMC archivist Bob Vietrogoski.
On October 1, 1850, medical student James Parker Barnett was sitting in the Anatomical Theater of the College of Physicians and Surgeons in the City of New York, awaiting a lecture. Barnett had entered P&S in 1848 and was well on his way to fulfilling the requirements for the doctor of medicine degree.
But instead of hearing a lecture on that October day, Barnett was summoned from the lecture hall and brought before the professors of anatomy, obstetrics, and surgery. A “Southern Gentleman,” the faculty members told Barnett, had claimed that Barnett was a “colored” student.
The professors questioned Barnett, who protested but did admit that his parents were not “Anglo Saxon.” The professors explained “that they had a rule binding upon them not to admit colored students, and that they saw no reason why they should make an exception” in his case. “Now, Mr. Barnett,” declared Professor Chandler R. Gilman, “do not come here again, where you are not wanted.” The conversation ended, and despite his attending P&S for two years without controversy, James Parker Barnett had been expelled.
The expulsion came as a great blow to James Parker Barnett’s father, also named James Barnett. The elder Barnett was a striver, a self-made man whose work outfitting packet ships had made him wealthy. He had his son educated at a private academy and then at the University of the City of New York (now New York University), where he graduated 10th out of 30 in the class of 1848. He was one of a small number of P&S students at the time who had earned a college degree.
No evidence indicates that the Barnetts publicly identified themselves as colored or were perceived by others to be colored. However, James Parker Barnett’s sister, Malvina, was married to the well-known physician and activist Dr. James McCune Smith, the first African-American to earn a medical degree (from the University of Glasgow in 1837). This relationship may have raised questions about the Barnetts’ racial background.
The Barnetts fought James’s expulsion. The senior Barnett argued that neither he nor his son was colored. He claimed that James Parker Barnett’s grandmother was an Indian woman from Canada who came to New York shortly before the American Revolution. His grandfather “was born in the Jersey and was also a child out of an Indian woman also from the vicinity of Canada.” Mr. Barnett also claimed that on James Parker Barnett’s mother’s side, his grandparents were a white Frenchman and a “French creole lady” from Guadalupe. However, to the P&S faculty, Mr. Barnett’s genealogical explanations failed to prove that his son was free of “African blood.”
Mr. Barnett then hired attorney John Jay II, the grandson of the Founding Father. Jay filed a petition in the New York Supreme Court for a writ of mandamus to compel P&S to readmit Barnett, although his petition never mentioned race. In March 1851, Justice John W. Edmonds granted the writ. However, for reasons unknown, Barnett did not resume attendance at P&S.
Some 18 months later, in an effort to conclude this matter, P&S administrators offered to examine Barnett for a medical degree. Barnett passed his examinations, but despite support from P&S, the New York Board of Regents ruled that because of his expulsion, he had not satisfied the requirement of two full courses of lectures. P&S then offered Barnett an honorary degree, but Barnett’s father rejected the offer, wishing for “a degree conferred as a matter of right and not of favor.”
At this point, P&S trustees decided to fight the writ in court. In April 1853, the case came before Superior Court Justice James J. Roosevelt, an 1815 graduate of Columbia College and a slave owner in his youth. Roosevelt overruled the original writ and referred the final legal decision back to the Board of Regents. Barnett never received a P&S degree.
This remarkable story, though unusual, is not without parallel. Just a few months after Barnett’s expulsion, Harvard’s medical school, under pressure from white medical students and fears of damage to the school’s reputation, rescinded the matriculation of three African-American students who had been openly admitted that fall. The 1850 Harvard episode is well-known and well-documented, but the Barnett case is virtually absent from the history of medical education and from 19th century African-American history in general.
Barnett eventually received his medical degree from Dartmouth Medical School in 1854, in the same graduating class as one of the expelled Harvard students. He returned to practice medicine in New York City. Years later, he was serving as a physician at the Colored Orphan Asylum during the New York City draft riots of 1863 and heroically helped to evacuate the children as their building was looted and burned.