Friday was Juneteenth, a celebration of the end of slavery. As you may know, the news of the Emancipation proclamation came two months late to Texas, and the holiday is meant to mark the arrival of that news. What began as a regional celebration in Galveston, Texas has grown to a national commemoration. Yet, that celebration is a bittersweet one given what the reality of emancipation must have been, according to a new scholarly book.
According to a new book, Sick from Freedom: African-American Illness and Suffering during the Civil War and Reconstruction by Jim Downs, emancipation from slavery was also a health crisis for those formerly enslaved. A health crisis that has been largely ignored both by whites at the time and by mostly white historians since then.
At least one quarter of the four million former slaves got sick or died between 1862 and 1870, Downs writes, including at least 60,000 (the actual number is probably two or three times higher, he argues) who perished in a smallpox epidemic that began in Washington and spread through the South as former slaves traveled in search of work — an epidemic that Downs says he is the first to reconstruct as a national event.
Downs first became interested in the health of newly liberated slaves when he was a graduate student at Columbia University with a job as a research assistant in the papers of Harriet Jacobs, the author of the 1861 autobiography “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl” and a vivid chronicler of the often abysmal conditions in the “contraband camps” where escaped slaves congregated during the war and in settlements of freed people more generally after it. The papers were full of heart-wrenching encounters with sick and dying freed people — references that he noticed were strikingly absent in recent scholarship.
To do this research, Downs sorted through the little-explored records of the medical division of the Freedmen’s Bureau and other archives, he found reams of statistical and anecdotal accounts of sick and dying freed people, whose suffering was seen by even some sympathetic Northern reformers as evidence that the former slaves, as a “race,” were doomed to extinction.
And, perhaps surprisingly, this is where I see a connection to much of the research that I’ve done on racism in the digital era. One of the ways that white supremacists and others not working against racial justice frame their discourse, is to talk about “slavery as a humane institution.” Just to be clear, it would mean coming to the wrong conclusion to read Downs’ work as implying that slavery was better than emancipation. It wasn’t. Emancipation was a moral and a material victory in every sense. And yet, at the same time, it was complicated by the crushing inequality and brutal continuation of racism after the official end of slavery that guaranteed that oppression manifested itself in the bodies and under the skin of the formerly enslaved. Even when the physical shackles were removed, there were a hundred ways that people could still be oppressed by the lack of food, housing, and clean running water.
So, when I see those historical photos of early Juneteenth celebrations, and I see how small and sober these events seem, I think what a bittersweet moment that must have been – celebrating emancipation and commemorating all those that didn’t make it, whether in the Middle Passage, or who were too sick to finally enjoy freedom.