Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Jim Downs's "Sick From Freedom"

Jim Downs is Assistant Professor of History and American Studies at Connecticut College. He is the editor of Taking Back the Academy: History of Activism, History as Activism and Why We Write: The Politics and Practice of Writing for Social Change.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Sick from Freedom: African-American Illness and Suffering during the Civil War and Reconstruction, and reported the following:
The page 99 test has proven to be quite serendipitous. On p. 99, I began to chart the initial outbreak of the smallpox epidemic that devastated the lives of newly freed slaves during the Civil War and Reconstruction. Without this section, Sick from Freedom would not exist.

Working on a previous research project, I had come across descriptions of former slaves as sick and dying during emancipation, but when I checked the scholarly literature to validate these claims, there were no references to former slaves’ health. When historians discussed freedpeople’s health or even their status during the war, they often portrayed them as “happy, triumphant, and healthy.” Consequently, I began to question if these references of sick and dying freed slaves were racist depictions, or if they revealed an untold aspect about freedpeople’s condition at the moment of freedom.

When I discussed this issue with senior historians in the field, some brushed off my queries by dismissing references of black people’s illness as products of either a racist medical system or of a bigoted historiography, or both; while others told me that sickness was “diffused,” that it was everywhere and thereby not worth historical investigation.

I, however, returned to the National Archives in Washington, DC, which houses the voluminous records of the Medical Division of the Freedmen’s Bureau, to see what I could dig up. There, I read through over a half-million records, including letters, reports, and correspondence. Despite the fact that doctors authored these documents, there was little reference to freedpeople’s health. Instead, the sources detailed the problems that doctors faced in treating so many sick freedpeople and revealed the administrative operations of the Freedmen’s Hospitals (which, by the way, represent the first efforts of the federal government to establish a national system of medical care.)

The records, however, remained overwhelmingly silent on what ailed the freedpeople. As I read more, I came across the scribble of one doctor who penned in black ink, which has now turned to faint yellow, the words, “the pox.”

At first, I was, like, “chicken pox?”

I then discovered another report that mentioned “variola,” which is the scientific term referring to the virus that causes smallpox. Once I found this reference, I distinctly remembering lifting my head from the desk, feeling like I was caught somewhere between an Indiana Jones movie and a melodramatic adaptation of a PBS documentary, and slowly wrote on my note card, “a smallpox epidemic?”

Over the next ten years, I pored over the documents at the National Archives, state historical societies (in both the North and South), and other manuscript collections for any reference that I could find about smallpox.

What begins on p.99 is my effort to reconstruct the smallpox epidemic and to provide the first-ever account of this deadly epidemic that sadly took the lives of tens of thousands of slaves—just as freedom began.
Learn more about Sick from Freedom at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue