Disability, Health, and Slavery in the Americas

Solicited by the OAH Committee on Disability and Disability History. Endorsed by the Disability History Association (DHA)

Type: Paper Session

Tags: Disability Studies; Medical History; Slavery


From the field to the courtroom to the anatomical theater, this panel brings together papers that span the 18th and 19th centuries in the U.S. South, Barbados, and Jamaica to discuss the intertwined issues of disability, health, and slavery. Drawing on disability as a critical category of historical analysis, these papers individually and collectively underscore the myriad ways that ideas about disability and impairment changed over time and location, fueled and helped naturalize emergent racial discourses, and bolstered white supremacy. The layered relationships between the enslaved body, law, medical education, and racial discourse informed significant social, legal, and political issues such as how personhood (and property) were defined, how knowledge was produced and legitimized, and how larger structures of power were constructed by and through race, disability, and gender. This panel seeks to answer questions like: how does slavery change the way we think about disability? How did disability among the enslaved shape understandings of race and citizenship in the Atlantic world? And how does colonialism challenge traditional disability histories of white North America and Europe? By using disability and the body to engage with these complex, overlapping issues, we hope to underscore how central disability is to the histories of slavery and race.

Papers Presented

Chargeable: Slave Labor, Disability, and the Language of Unsoundness in the Antebellum South

This paper focuses on how enslaved people experienced disabling injuries related to forced labor and how these conditions intersected with property law and the concept of “unsoundness,” the system through which slaveholders and traders devalued enslaved people on the basis of disablement. Many enslaved people acquired disabling conditions as a direct result of the material conditions of their enslavement and accidents were one of the most common ways this occurred. Slavery often forced children to take on adult roles and complete tasks for their families that left them unsupervised in dangerous circumstances and led to disabling accidents that diminished their monetary value. Accidents also resulted from slaves’ labor in domestic, agricultural, and industrial settings and were particularly troublesome for slaveholders when accidents “damaged” bondpeople they hired out to labor for others. These impairments affected enslaved people’s embodied experiences and shaped slaveholders’ treatment of them. In some cases, they also led to complicated court cases involving disputes over compensation for damaged “property” or who would be responsible for the financial burden of disabled slaves suddenly deemed “chargeable,” meaning that the cost of their care was a liability that slaveholders could no longer recoup through the value of their labor. By the antebellum years, southern physicians increasingly asserted themselves in these legal debates to assert their authority as medical experts of the black body.

Presented By
Jenifer Barclay, University at Buffalo, State University of New York

Between Human and Animal: The Disabling Power of Slave Law

Through a close examination of British Caribbean slave laws, focusing particularly on Barbados and Jamaica, this paper argues that British Caribbean slave law always recognized the humanity of the slave, and its power derived from its ability to see Africans’ humanity and effectively disable it, to take the slave apart as a whole legal being. Anti-black racism and support for slavery and the slave trade created a space of abjection that suspended captive Africans and their descendants between the categories of human and animal. The slave laws of Barbados and Jamaica recognized the humanity of the enslaved, but treated it as a suspect and exploitable form of humanity. African humanity was, therefore, the fundamental problem of slave law as well as what made slavery possible and profitable. On the one hand, the slave codes of Barbados and Jamaica disabled enslaved Africans by limiting their mobility, freedom, and autonomy, and divesting them of political status. On the other hand, they encouraged the physical impairment and disfigurement of captives by sanctioning punishments that disabled and disfigured—for example flogging, amputation, and branding—as well as by establishing a culture in which masters, mistresses, and overseers could punish captives however they desired and with impunity. Slave law and racial ideology created a distinct legal category of disablement which was applied to enslaved Africans in order to exploit them and enable slaveowners to destroy them through disabling punishments.

Presented By
Stefanie Hunt-Kennedy, University of New Brunswick

Race, Disability, and Slavery in the Antebellum Anatomical Theater

Based on excerpt from my book manuscript Masters of Health: Racial Science and Slavery in American Medical Schools, this talk examines the content and methods for lecturing on racial anatomy in antebellum medical schools. Specifically, I uncover how professors developed a pedagogy of difference rooted in racial science discourse, including discussion of the origins of racial difference, putting human variance into white supremacist hierarchies, and training students in the faulty methods of racial science such as craniometry. First and foremost, then, this paper argues that rather than a casual racial remark here or there, anatomy professors systematically incorporated racial science into medical schools’ curriculums. Second, this paper unpacks the multi-sensory methods of lectures, arguing that professors encouraged students to use auditory, visual, and tactile approaches to learn about race. Compared to just discussing human anatomy, images and models made imagined racial differences seem material to students. Beyond just representations, professors utilized objects from the anatomy museum, meaning that just as they orated medical arguments for white supremacy, they were surrounded by and at times holding the stolen remains of non-white bodies, performing anatomical and enslaver forms of mastery simultaneously. Finally, this paper relates the cases of Maximo and Bartola, two children with dwarfism and microcephaly trafficked from El Salvador to Boston, who were displayed by P.T. Barnum and discussed in class by Holmes. Their story highlights the tight relationship between popular and professional anatomy education and the material consequences of anatomists’ racial praxes.

Presented By
Christopher D. E. Willoughby, Pennsylvania State University

Session Participants

Chair and Commentator: Jenny Shaw, University of Alabama
Jenny Shaw is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Alabama where she teaches courses on the histories of enslavement, the Atlantic World, and the Caribbean. Her first book, Everyday Life in the Early English Caribbean: Irish, Africans, and the Construction of Difference, was published in the “Early American Places” series at the University of Georgia Press in 2013. She is currently completing a manuscript entitled The Planter’s Progeny: Family and the Formation of an Atlantic World, 1630-1730, a serial biography of five women who bore children with the same Barbados planter that focuses on questions of family, enslavement, race, and meanings of freedom in the early modern era. Her research has been funded by fellowships sponsored by the John Carter Brown Library, the Huntington Library, the Doris Quinn Foundation, and the Rockefeller Foundation and she published articles in Past & Present, Slavery & Abolition, and The William and Mary Quarterly.

Presenter: Jenifer Barclay, University at Buffalo, State University of New York
Jenifer L. Barclay is currently an Assistant Professor in the Department of History at the University at Buffalo (SUNY) and, from 2013-2019, held the same rank at Washington State University in the Department of Critical Culture, Gender, and Race Studies. She received her Ph.D. in history (2011) from Michigan State University and her work has been supported by a pre-doctoral fellowship at the University of Virginia’s Carter G. Woodson Institute for African American and African Studies (2009–2011) and a postdoctoral fellowship in African American Studies at Case Western Reserve University (2011-12). Barclay is an associate editor for Review of Disability Studies: An International Journal, and her current book project, The Mark of Slavery: Disability, Race, and Gender in Antebellum America, deals with the lived experiences of enslaved people with disabilities as well as the metaphorical, ontological links that antebellum Americans forged between race, gender, and disability as a way to shore up tenuous racial categories and shifting gender relations in the turbulent decades leading up to the Civil War. Her book will appear in the University of Illinois Press’s cutting-edge book series “Disability Histories” in early spring 2021. Barclay has also published several articles and book chapters in journals and collections such as Slavery & Abolition; Women, Gender, and Families of Color; and The Oxford Handbook on Disability History.

Presenter: Stefanie Hunt-Kennedy, University of New Brunswick
Stefanie Hunt-Kennedy is a historian of the Caribbean and the Atlantic World and Disability History and Associate Professor at the University of New Brunswick. Her first book, Between Fitness and Death: Disability and Slavery in the Caribbean (University of Illinois Press, 2020) is the first book-length study of Caribbean slavery to make disability its primary focus. The book illustrates that the histories of disability and slavery overlap in significant ways; and second, that Caribbean bondspeople form an integral part of wider disability history.

Presenter: Christopher D. E. Willoughby, Pennsylvania State University
Christopher D. E. Willoughby (PhD, Tulane University, 2016) is a historian of slavery, medicine, and racism, and currently, he is a Visiting Junior Fellow at The Pennsylvania State University's Center for Humanities & Information. His work focuses on the role Atlantic slavery and scientific racism played in shaping the curriculum of medical schools in the past and present. Recently, he has received residential fellowships from the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture and Emory University, and he is also a visiting fellow in the University of Pennsylvania’s study “Penn Medicine and the Afterlives of Slavery.” Currently, Willoughby is completing two under contract books. First, he is writing a book about the history of racial science and slavery in U.S. medical schools, which is under contract with UNC Press. Second, he is the editor with Sean Morey Smith of Medicine and Healing in the Age of Slavery (LSU Press), which studies the diverse healing traditions that emerged under Atlantic slavery. He also has published articles in popular and scholarly venues, such as The New West Indian Guide, The Journal of Southern History, The Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences, Black Perspectives, and The Washington Post.