The Lives of the Dead in the Shadow of American Slavery

Saturday, April 2, 2022, 8:45 AM - 10:15 AM

Type: Paper Session

Tags: African American; Slavery


Slavery and death have long been entwined in the moral imagination. Even before Orlando Patterson theorized slavery as a form of social death, scholars and abolitionists described the enslaved as enacting a kind of living death. Apologists for slavery argued that the institution was born of war and gained its legitimacy as a substitute for death. Opponents argued that it shared a moral taproot with such crimes as suicide and murder. From both vantages, death and slavery came together as intimately related concepts—as heuristics for appreciating one another and even as two sides of the same coin. This panel approaches the theme of slavery and death from a historical perspective. Across four theoretically sophisticated and archivally grounded papers, it considers what death meant in the shadow of American slavery for enslaved peoples, their enslavers, and the larger national community. Did the enslaved have a right to live? Did they have a right to die? Who was permitted to kill them? What did it mean when Black and white fell victim to the same maladies? Was death an escape from slavery? Or did it extend the person’s status as property? Kathryn Olivarius explores these questions through an evaluation of the racialized culture of life insurance in the Deep South. Signe Fourmy examines the case of an enslaved woman who was sentenced to death for infanticide but had her punishment commuted, in recognition of her value as a living slave. Christopher Willoughby traces the value retained by the enslaved in death, as their bodies entered the market for cadavers and became the basis of modern medical education. Daniel Platt interprets a neglected postbellum lawsuit between the abolitionists William Lloyd Garrison and Wendell Phillips that invited the courts to consider whether the dead were more like people or more like things. The papers on this panel span the antebellum era to the wake of the Civil War. They share a common basis in African American history and the history of slavery but branch out into several different subfields, including legal history, medical history, business history, women’s history, and intellectual history. The panel thus promises to appeal to a range of audiences while advancing a coherent and compelling conversation. Amidst the struggle for Black lives in the present, how are scholars to understand the meaning of Black death in the nineteenth century in the shadow of American slavery?

Papers Presented

Climate Risk and Race: Insuring Lives in the Antebellum Deep South

By the 1850s, many non-slaveholding whites in the American Deep South sought life insurance to protect themselves from economic uncertainty and a forbidding disease environment. Every other summer, yellow fever killed about 8 percent of New Orleans’ population, but up to 30 percent of “unacclimated” recent immigrants from Germany and Ireland. With such high and unpredictable mortality, Northern actuaries fretted about how to make this market profitable. Underwriters used data from slave insurance tables and then guessed at a white person’s life-expectancy using idiosyncratic perceptions of racial and ethnic difference. Eventually, insurers developed the notion of “climate risk” to counteract this market’s uncertainty and levied hefty “climate premium” on all white Deep Southerners, even “acclimated” ones (i.e. immune yellow fever survivors). But for northerners to define acclimation in scientific, objective terms—a social category imbued with great local meaning—chafed against white Orleanian sensibilities. They hated climate premiums for quantifying a risk that contradicted the myths white Orleanians had constructed about their region, its healthiness, their virtue, and the value of whiteness. Indeed, the idea of northern actuaries reaching their own definition of acclimation and determining that Deep Southern whites were riskier and sicklier—and therefore must pay substantially more for the privilege of insuring their own lives—was understood as a prejudicial slight against their entire system – against whiteness, slavery, and the commodities the system generated.

Presented By
Kathryn Olivarius, Stanford University

“Should the slave Lucy die for her offence?”: Commonwealth of Virginia v. Lucy, a Slave

On September 16, 1852, Lucy, a fourteen-year-old enslaved girl quietly stood before the City of Richmond Hustings Court as five justices unanimously convicted her of murdering her newborn son. Asked if she had anything to say for herself, she remained silent. The court sentenced her to death and ordered her confined to the Virginia State Penitentiary to await execution. Moments before she was escorted from the courtroom, she heard the court assess the value of her life at $650. After receiving numerous petitions from members of the community, the governor instead commuted her death sentence to sale and transportation. Lucy’s reprieve illustrates the complex dynamics at play in local decisions to prosecute, convict, and punish enslaved women for infanticide. Lucy was not the only woman who used violence to end her infant’s life, but she is one of a small number of enslaved mothers whose actions remain recorded, yet largely unexamined, in Virginia’s extant criminal court records. Using county court records and newspapers, this paper explores the ways in which the community’s response shaped local legal outcomes for enslaved criminal defendants. Specifically, I ask whether the defendant’s age, perceived mental capacity, and reputation influenced the community’s mobilization in support of certain enslaved defendants. Although infanticide occurred across racial, social, and economic boundaries, I argue that when committed by enslaved women, these acts of maternal resistance bear particular meaning—as do the community’s petitions for commutation and the governor’s decision to commute sentences of death to sale and transportation.

The Agency of the Dead in the Age of Emancipation

In 1866, the membership of the American Anti-Slavery Society went to legal battle against one another over the uses of a bequest given to the Society for the purpose of creating “a public sentiment that will put an end to negro slavery in this country.” Slavery had been abolished in 1865 by the Thirteenth Amendment, and the membership divided on how to spend the fund. Some believed it should be directed to the South and the project of African American uplift. Others argued that it should pass into the feminist movement for women’s emancipation. The family of the benefactor sought to reclaim the fund for itself, on the grounds that its goal had been achieved. Scholarship on the case—Jackson v. Phillips, heard by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court in 1867—has treated it as an example of the fracture of abolitionist alliances after the Civil War. This paper, however, interprets it as a constitutive part of the abolitionist moment, as liberal legal thought struggled to determine the content and limits of emancipation. At issue was not simply what the fund should be spent on but whether the benefactor’s wishes still mattered. Did the dead have will and agency, like persons, or did death mark the point at which people could be treated again as things? Relating the case to themes in abolitionist literature and liberal political philosophy, this paper uses Jackson v. Phillips to explore how Americans reconciled the moral challenge of emancipation with such institutions as property, contract, and trust.

Presented By
Daniel Platt, University of Illinois at Springfield

Collected without Consent: Empire and Erasure in Harvard’s Racial Skulls, 1835‒1861

In 1847, upon his retirement, John Collins Warren gave his entire anatomical collection to Harvard’s medical school, including a collection of “national skulls” that would grow to include more than 150 objects. The national skulls were organized in the Warren Anatomical Museum by simple racial categories, narrating a white supremacist understanding of race and ethnicity to medical students. While the collection housed skulls from subordinated peoples the world over, in this presentation, I specifically analyze how skulls from the black Atlantic were collected and dubbed “African,” attempting to erase their individual and cultural identities in favor of their simple racialization. Specifically, I will examine the story of two skulls of African descendants, an unnamed leader from the 1835 Muslim Uprising in Bahia and another of Sturmann, a Khoe man from Little Namaqua Land who committed suicide in Boston in 1860 while a living exhibit. In telling their stories, I have two goals. First, I will posit a method for writing the history of racist museum exhibitions that does not continue the silencing of marginalized peoples displayed in those exhibits. Second, I argue that medical schools were intimately connected to the violence of slavery and empire. They purchased, displayed, and published racist descriptions of peoples whose lives were upended by commodification and colonialism. Through giving attention to the experiences of the skulls’ living antecedents though, I show that hidden in these records are histories of rebellion, politics, and survival in the age of empire.

Presented By
Christopher D. E. Willoughby, Huntington Library and Harvard University

Session Participants

Chair: Kellie Carter Jackson, Wellesley College
Kellie Carter Jackson is a 19th century historian in the Department of Africana Studies. Her new book, Force & Freedom: Black Abolitionists and the Politics of Violence (University of Pennsylvania Press), examines the conditions that led some black abolitionists to believe slavery might only be abolished by violent force.

Carter Jackson is co-editor of Reconsidering Roots: Race, Politics, & Memory (Athens: University of Georgia Press). With a forward written by Henry Louis Gates Jr., Reconsidering Roots is the first scholarly collection of essays devoted entirely to understanding the remarkable tenacity of the film’s visual, cultural, and political influence on American history. Carter Jackson and Erica Ball have also edited a Special Issue on the 40th Anniversary of Roots for Transition Magazine (Issue 122}. Carter Jackson was also featured in the History Channel's documentary, “Roots: A History Revealed” which was nominated for a NAACP Image Award in 2016.

Commentator: Micki McElya, University of Connecticut
Micki McElya is professor of History and affiliated faculty
with the Africana Studies Institute, the American Studies Program, and the
Women's, Gender & Sexuality Studies Program at the University of Connecticut.
She specializes in the histories of women, gender, racial formation, and
sexuality in the United States from the Civil War to the present, with an
emphasis on political culture and memory. Her recent bookThe Politics
of Mourning: Death and Honor in Arlington National Cemetery
2019), was named Choiceoutstanding academic book, won the
John Brinckerhoff Jackson Book Prize from the Foundation for Landscape Studies
and the inaugural Sharon Harris Book Award from the University of Connecticut's
Humanities Institute; it was also a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for General
Nonfiction and the Jefferson Davis Book Award from the American Civil War
Museum. McElya is also the author of Clinging to Mammy: The Faithful
Slave in Twentieth-Century America
(2007) as well as several articles
and book chapters. Before joining the faculty of the University of Connecticut,
she was an assistant professor of American Studies at the University of
Alabama. She is currently at work on a book entitledNo More Miss
America! How Protesting the 1968 Pageant Changed a Nation
, which is under
contract with Avid Reader Press (Simon & Schuster). This project has
received support from a fellowship with the UConn Humanities Institute and the
NEH Public Scholars program. McElya is an OAH Distinguished Lecturer.

Presenter: Kathryn Olivarius, Stanford University
Kathryn Olivarius is an Assistant Professor of History at Stanford University, where she has taught since 2017. Her research and teaching focus on slavery’s rise and fall in the American South and the wider Atlantic World, disease in the nineteenth century, the history of race and ethnicity, and the social upheaval of the Age of Revolutions. She was awarded Stanford’s Phi Beta Kappa teaching prize for undergraduate teaching in 2019. Before moving to California, she was a Past and Present postdoctoral fellow at the Institute for Historical Research in London. She is currently at work on a book entitled Necropolis: Disease, Power, and Capitalism in the Cotton Kingdom for Harvard University Press. Her article “Immunity, Power, and Belonging in Antebellum New Orleans,” was published by the American Historical Review in 2019. Her research has been featured in multiple publications, including The New York Times, Bloomberg, Scientific American, The Lancet, and The Washington Post.

Presenter: Daniel Platt, University of Illinois at Springfield
Daniel Platt is an assistant professor of legal studies at the University of Illinois Springfield. His research and teaching focus on law, the history of the body, and the history of capitalism. Before joining the faculty at UIS, Daniel was a postdoctoral fellow at the University at Buffalo School of Law and a graduate fellow at the Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice at Brown University. He is currently completing a book manuscript entitled Moral Debt in Modern America for University of Chicago Press. One article drawn from this project, “The Natures of Capital,” appeared in the Journal of American History in 2018 as a recipient of the Louis Pelzer Memorial Award. A second, “The Domestication of Credit,” appeared in History of the Present in 2019.

Presenter: Christopher D. E. Willoughby, Huntington Library and Harvard University
Christopher D. E. Willoughby is a Junior Visiting Fellow in the Center for Humanities and Information at The Pennsylvania State University. His research examines the history of racial science and medical education in the United States and Atlantic World, as well as having additional interests in the social history of disease and occupational health. With Sean Morey Smith, he is the editor of the forthcoming volume Medicine and Healing in the Age of Slavery (Louisiana State University Press) and is completing a monograph entitled Masters of Health: Racial Science and Slavery in American Medical Schools, which is under contract with the University of North Carolina Press.