OAH Distinguished Lecturer Profile

OAH Distinguished Lectureship program 40 years 1981-2021

James Downs

Portrait of James Downs
Image Credit: Jaci Downs Photography

James Downs is an associate professor of history at Connecticut College. In 2015-2017, he was awarded a multiyear Mellon New Directions fellowship and was a Visiting Fellow in medical anthropology at Harvard University. His research interests include Civil War and Reconstruction; slavery and emancipation; medicine and public health; and gender and sexuality. He is the author of Stand by Me: The Forgotten History of Gay Liberation (2016), a history of gay life in the 1970s, and Sick from Freedom: African-American Illness and Suffering during the Civil War and Reconstruction (2012), which examines the unexpected medical consequences of emancipation. His research uncovered a smallpox epidemic which raged from 1862 to 1870 as well as the history of the Freedmen's Hospitals, the first system of federal health care. He is a coeditor, with Jennifer Brier and Jennifer Morgan, of Connexions: Histories of Race and Sex in North America (2016). Downs blogs for the Huffington Post and his articles have also appeared in the New York Times, the Chronicle of Higher Education, and The Lancet, among other publications. He is currently working on a history of epidemiology with a focus on the nineteenth-century international cholera epidemics.

Featured Lecture

OAH Lectures

Emancipated from slavery, former bondspeople entered into an environment in which more soldiers died from disease than from battle. This talk explores the high rate of illness and mortality that devastated formerly enslaved people during the Civil War and Reconstruction. In particular, it provides the first analysis of the smallpox epidemic that began in Washington, DC in 1862 and then spread to the Lower South in 1863 and Mississippi Valley in 1864-65. By 1865, the epidemic plagued the entire South and began to move west and infected Native Americans on reservations. Due to the unexpected and inordinate mortality, the federal government in an unprecedented move established the first-ever system of national health care in the South--establishing over 40 hospitals, employing over 120 physicians and treating well-over one million freedpeople.
I argue that Harriet Jacobs, author of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, did not want to be found, despite the herculean efforts to recover her from the archives and piece together her biography. I reveal how Jacobs and her daughter Louisa continued to stay "underground" during the Reconstruction era and during Jim Crow.
This lecture explores the question of same-sex desire and violence among enslaved men in the plantation South from 1607-1865. Drawing on a thin volume of archival records, this lecture also questions how historians evaluate evidence and the methods they employ in writing about the past.
In New Orleans in 1973, an arsonist set fire to a bar that gay men converted into a church; 32 men and women were killed and over 40 others were injured. This lecture traces the events that led up to the fire and the group of individuals who perished--who were members of the Metropolitan Community Church and used a bar on Sunday evening as a place of their worship. This was the largest massacre of gay people in U.S. History