Calculating Inequality: Science, Health, and Citizenship in the Age of Emancipation

Endorsed by the OAH Committee on Disability and Disability History, the Society for Historians of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era (SHGAPE), and the Society for U.S. Intellectual History

Saturday, April 4, 2020, 8:00 AM - 9:30 AM

Type: Paper Session

Tags: African American; Print Culture; Science, Medicine, and Public Health


Historians have long studied the ways in which racial theorists and practitioners used medical science to sustain American slavery. And in recent years historians have also charted the health crisis that greeted wartime emancipation. Although the Civil War ended legal enslavement in the United States it failed to eradicate the racial essentialism at its foundation, and African Americans found their physical selves still subjected to white dominance, including in medicine and its allied sciences. Indeed, physicians, scientists, reformers, and intellectuals—many under the auspices of the federal government—developed new and seemingly objective ways for measuring and conceptualizing bodily difference that would provide the requisite racial infrastructure in the modern, post-slavery nation.

This panel explores how thinkers, practitioners, and their “subjects” produced racial knowledge and naturalized it in the plain wrapper of scientific objectivity. Braiding together the political revolution of emancipation and the concurrent revolutions in medical thinking and state-building, it investigates the overlooked intersection of race, health, science, and the nation in late-nineteenth century America. How did the abundance of somatic data gathered during the Civil War underwrite—or undermine—emerging understandings of racial difference? What accounts for the federal government’s robust interest in “objectifying” its citizens and in deploying ostensibly unmediated statistics to the social “problem” of a multiracial population? And how did African Americans challenge, negotiate, and influence these affronts to their hard-won freedom and citizenship rights in the shadow of an erstwhile regime of objectification?

To address these questions, panelists investigate important currents of “race-making” during the Civil War and its aftermath. Sarah E. Gardner considers the purifying and racializing discourses that worked in tandem over the Civil War era to reforge the white, post-slavery republic. Rana A. Hogarth examines eugenic race crossing studies as applied to mixed race individuals in the Americas, revealing how scientific and medical authorities went about “measuring miscegenation” and to what ends. Leslie Schwalm likewise explores the measurement and commodification of African Americans—in particular, the ways in which Union military medical practitioners appropriated the racialized bodies of black soldiers for scientific analysis. Dale Kretz investigates how formerly enslaved pensioners negotiated their disability claims against the new, biomedical technologies and techniques deployed by the federal administrative state. Together, the panelists suggest the importance of understanding how the late-nineteenth century fascination with commensurability and scientific objectivity served as the base alloy for the nation-state rid of slavery but not racial hierarchy. At the same time, the panel grapples with how African Americans confronted, endured, and undermined these scientific affronts to their newfound citizenship.

Papers Presented

The Shadow of Slavery: Measuring Miscegenation in the Early Twentieth Century

Interracial sex between blacks and whites predated the formation of the United States, but that did not stop America’s leading eugenicist, Charles B. Davenport from viewing it as a new problem in the early decades of the twentieth century. Davenport’s published writings on race-crossing, as it was termed, reveal a preoccupation with “mulattoes,” a group he referred to as a “nuisance,” “badly put together,” and “ineffective.” Race crossing soon became a topic worthy of sustained study, and mixed race persons targets of eugenic scrutiny. As Davenport outlined the dangers mulattoes posed to society, he turned not only to Mendelian genetics, but also to antebellum medical discourses about mixed race people’s bodies. As this paper demonstrates, Davenport’s race-crossing studies: Heredity of Skin Color in Negro White Crosses (1913) and Race Crossing in Jamaica, (1929), closely adhered to antebellum-era scientific investigations into race that took for granted the idea that black people’s bodies were distinctive and inferior; however, his books differed because they relied on genetics and new statistical methods to reach those conclusions. These studies did more than measure and quantify mixed race skin—they rehabilitated, refined, and in some cases sanctioned, long-held beliefs from the era of slavery about the physical and mental limitations of mixed race people. And while elements of Davenport’s studies did debunk myths about the mulatto body—including claims of innate infertility—the studies also stoked fears about the ability of the offspring of black and white parents to infiltrate the Anglo-Saxon race.

Presented By
Rana Asali Hogarth, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

The Atlantic Monthly’s “Civil-izing” Narrative, 1861–1865

Though the Atlantic Monthly was from its founding in 1857 decidedly anti-slavery in bent, during the Civil War era, it seemed more concerned with the fate of the nation than with the horrors of slavery. Indeed, much of its wartime content advanced the argument that the real damage wrought by slavery was to republican ideals, not to the enslaved. This paper explores two strands of discourse that appeared in the Atlantic: one that clung to the idea of the war as purifying and; the other that, as Stephen Knadler observed, connected “the development of societies to innate racial characters.” By way of one example, James Russell Lowell, the abolitionist poet and the magazine’s first editor, gave voice to the first strand when he ruefully acknowledged that the war’s dead was worth the sacrifice. “It is not until our earthen vessels are broken,” he explained “that we find and truly possess the treasures that was laid up in them.” Six months later, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s description of “a party of contrabands,” exemplified the second. “So rudely were they attired,” he remarked, “so picturesquely natural in manners, and wearing such a crust of primeval simplicity … that they seemed a kind of creature by themselves, not altogether human, but perhaps quite as good.” These two strands worked in tandem, offering us a way to see the role of print in the cultural and intellectual enterprise of reforging the white republic.

Presented By
Sarah E. Gardner, Mercer University

Last Rites/Lost Rights: Race, Research, and the Disposal of Human Remains during the Civil War

This Paper explores the commodification of black bodies during and immediately after the Civil War for the purposes of medical and scientific research—not only the living, but also the dead. Using examples from three different Union wartime hospitals and locations, I explore how white Union medical practitioners used, profited from, displayed, and disposed of the bodies of African American civilians and soldiers. Building on the important research of Daina Ramey Berry on the antebellum trade in the cadavers of enslaved people, this paper focuses on the role of Union military medical practitioners in the post-emancipation, wartime commodification of black bodies, revealing the significant investments of northern medical practitioners in a process of “race-making,” of securing the ideologies of racial inferiority in the rhetoric of science, even as the war undermined and finally destroyed the practice of American slavery.

Presented By
Leslie A. Schwalm, University of Iowa

Some Measure of Justice: American Americans and the Biomedical State

This paper explores the diagnostic activities of the U.S. Pension Bureau as its medical examiners evaluated the disability claims of freedpeople. In the four decades after the Civil War, the Pension Bureau performed millions of medical examinations on Union veterans. Like their white, northern counterparts, tens of thousands of black veterans, in order to secure military pensions, had to submit to periodic medical examinations before a board of three federally deputized surgeons. After an extensive and intensive process, these boards would rate the claimant’s level of disability on a scale of sixteenths, to be matched to a corresponding rate of pension for the successful claimant. Deploying the latest biomedical knowledge and technologies, these examinations embodied for many the newly professionalized, technocratic administrative state. But the import of these examinations has not been fully appreciated, much less so how formerly enslaved men—as yet in the penumbra of slavery—engaged these examining boards.

This paper will argue that medical examinations for pensions were a central arena of struggle for formerly enslaved men in the South. In an era when citizenship was premised in part on moral and physical “fitness,” how was it that tens of thousands of formerly enslaved men and women earned the fruits of citizenship precisely by virtue of their disability and dependency? Using case files, government documents, and newspapers, this paper explores how African Americans negotiated their examinations and, in turn, their citizenship.

Presented By
Dale Kretz, Texas Tech University

Session Participants

Chair: Melissa N. Stein, University of Kentucky
Melissa N. Stein is an associate professor and Director of Undergraduate Studies in the Gender and Women’s Studies Department at the University of Kentucky, with affiliations in African & African American Studies, History, and Health, Society, & Populations. She previously completed postdoctoral fellowships at the Rutgers University Center for Race & Ethnicity and in the Gender Studies Department at Indiana University. She received her BA from Franklin & Marshall College in 1999 and her PhD in History from Rutgers University in 2008, specializing in African-American and women’s/gender history. While at Rutgers, Stein was also a graduate fellow at the Institute for Research on Women and an Excellence Fellow at the Institute for Health, Health Care Policy, and Aging Research.

Stein’s first book, Measuring Manhood: Race and the Science of Masculinity, 1830-1934 (University of Minnesota Press, 2015), is an intersectional analysis of scientific racism in nineteenth and early twentieth century America that interrogates biomedical constructions of citizenship, investigates the relationship between racial and sexual sciences, and examines scientists’ attempts to offer medical solutions to the nation’s “race problems.” Her current book project, tentatively titled (Dis)Membering MOVE: Race, Meaning-Making, and the Politics of Memory in the 1985 Police Bombing, critically examines the 1985 MOVE disaster, in which the Philadelphia police department, with authorization from the mayor, responded to a stand-off with a radical--and mostly black--“back to nature” group the city was trying to evict from its communal house in West Philadelphia by dropping a firebomb on the roof, burning the house to the ground and killing eleven MOVE members, five of them children. Though often characterized as a “cult” by the media, the story of MOVE is not nearly as well known today as Ruby Ridge or Waco, and when it is recalled in the national media or consciousness at all, it is typically dis-remembered as a racial event--not unlike Hurricane Katrina more recently. Even in the midst of the current dialogue around race and police brutality and the publicity surrounding the growing Black Lives Matter movement, the story of the MOVE disaster remains relatively forgotten; indeed, as protests raged in Baltimore this spring following the death of Freddie Gray while in police custody, NPR was the only national media outlet to note the 30th anniversary of the police action in Philadelphia that left eleven African Americans dead. (Dis)Membering MOVE interrogates this erasure, while also examining the long tradition of black protest thought that insists on remembering.

Presenter: Sarah E. Gardner, Mercer University
Sarah E. Gardner is Distinguished University Professor of History at Mercer University where she teaches courses on the Civil War Era, the World the Civil War Made, and on literary and intellectual history. She is the author of Blood and Irony: Southern White Women’s Narratives of the Civil War (University of North Carolina Press, 2004) and Reviewing the South: The Literary Marketplace and the Southern Renaissance, 1920-1941 (Cambridge University Press, 2017). She is currently finishing a manuscript on reading during the American Civil War, which is under contract with UNC Press. With Jonathan Daniel Wells, she co-edits a series on Print Culture in the South for the University of Georgia Press.

Presenter: Rana Asali Hogarth, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Rana A. Hogarth is an assistant professor of History at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. She holds a Ph.D. in History, with a concentration in History of Science/History of Medicine from Yale University. She also holds an M.H.S. in Health Policy from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Her scholarship interrogates the creation and deployment of conceptions of racial difference in North America and the Caribbean as they emerged through the language of medicine and its allied fields. Her work is grounded in highlighting the experiences of black people, both in bondage and in freedom, who negotiated systems of medicine that on the one hand recognized their humanity, and on the other, sanctioned their subjugation. Finally her research highlights how the professionalization of medicine and the production of scientific knowledge in the Americas was bound up with the making of race. Her research intersects with African American History, History of Science, History of Medicine, and Atlantic World History. Her first book, Medicalizing Blackness: Making Racial Difference in the Atlantic World, 1780, (University of North Carolina Press, 2017) examines how white physicians defined blackness as a medically significant marker of difference in slave societies of the American Atlantic.

Presenter: Dale Kretz, Texas Tech University
Dale Kretz is an assistant professor of African American history at Texas Tech University. He received his Ph.D. in history from Washington University in St. Louis in May 2016, where he also served as a lecturer in American Culture Studies. Kretz’s teaching interests reflect a strong investment in issues of race, class, and inequality. At Texas Tech, he offers undergraduate and graduate courses in U.S. history, African American history, the Civil War and Reconstruction, and race and medicine. Kretz’s research focuses on nineteenth-century African American history with an emphasis on slavery, emancipation, and the state. He is especially interested in uncovering the ways in which freedpeople encountered and shaped federal institutions in the decades after the Civil War. His book manuscript in progress, After the Freedmen’s Bureau: Administering Freedom in the Age of Emancipation, explores how formerly enslaved men and women maintained their wartime foothold in the federal government from the Civil War until the New Deal. While claiming military benefits in extraordinary numbers, freedpeople negotiated issues of slavery, identity, loyalty, dependency, and disability, all within an increasingly complex and rapidly expanding federal administrative state.

Commentator: Gretchen Long, Williams College
Gretchen Long is Professor of History at Williams College in Western Massachusetts. She teaches courses on slavery and emancipation, American Medical History, American Women’s history, and African American literary history. Long also teaches and works closely with the Africana Studies program at Williams. Her first book, Doctoring Freedom: The Politics of African American Medical Care in Slavery and Emancipation was published in 2012 by University of North Carolina Press. Long has also published an article on medical themes in Charles Chesnutt’s fiction in Southern Quarterly. She currently serves as the College’s faculty liaison to the Office of Diversity Equity and Inclusion. From 2016-2018, Long was the Faculty Director of Williams-Exeter Program at University of Oxford, UK.

Presenter: Leslie A. Schwalm, University of Iowa
Leslie Schwalm, Professor of History and Gender, Women's and Sexuality Studies at the University of Iowa, is the author of A Hard Fight for We: Women's Transition from Slavery to Freedom in South Carolina (1997) and Emancipation's Diaspora: Race and Reconstruction in the Upper Midwest (2009), as well as several articles and book chapters on women, slavery, emancipation, and Reconstruction in publications such as the Journal of Women’s History, Civil War History, Slavery and Abolition, and the Journal of Law, Medicine & Ethics. Her recent article (“A Body of ‘Truly Scientific Work:’ The U.S. Sanitary Commission and the Elaboration of Race in the Civil War Era, The Journal of the Civil War Era, Vol. 8 No. 4 (2018), 647-63) comes from her current book project on the wartime elaboration of racial science and medicine by northern whites.