Downs Talks Often-Ignored Post-Emancipation Struggles of Former Slaves

Speaking with Boston College students on Wednesday night, James Downs of Connecticut College revealed a dark and often ignored aspect of emancipation in America. Downs’s talk followed the argument of his book, Sick from Freedom, which exposed the brutal reality of the epidemiological crisis that immediately followed emancipation.

Desperate to escape the violence of the American South, African American freedmen fled to Union Army camps. There, they exchanged their labor for food and a small living space for their families. These tight conditions, however, allowed the quick spread of disease.

Downs compared this situation to the similar conditions that Civil War soldiers faced. The majority of Civil War casualties came from disease, not warfare, he said. Likewise, the cramped conditions of post-war refugee camps created an environment ripe for an epidemic.

Political partisanship long clouded the truth around this issue, however. Pro-slavery Southerners used reports of dying African Americans as evidence of supposed racial inferiority, arguing that inherent weakness in Africans made Reconstruction impossible.

“This fulfilled the Southern parable that black people could not be independent,” Downs said.

For their own part, Republicans attempted to hide the true devastation of freedmen after Emancipation. To counter racist pro-slavery propaganda, liberals focused on notions of black strength and heroism in the Civil War, avoiding the subject of the crisis among African American refugees.

In his research at Columbia, Downs decided to uncover the actual circumstances surrounding the health crisis former slaves faced immediately after their emancipation. This interest stemmed from his reading of Harriet Jacobs’s autobiographical work, Life of a Slave Girl, which, among other things, described the ubiquity of disease among African American refugees.

Many doubted the work’s authenticity, but scholars validated it during Downs’s time in college. Knowing that many other aspects of the work had been confirmed, he grew interested in its depiction of death and disease. He described its disturbing illustration of disease among newly freed slaves.

“Ten or 20 people would arrive at a camp and die,” he said.

Downs’ research uncovered the story of Joseph Miller, whose experiences exemplified the ravages of disease during Reconstruction.

Miller travelled with his wife and three children to Camp Nelson for protection from Southerners. During a rainstorm, the Union Army decided to expel the many African-American refugees there. Due to the severe illness of his son, Miller begged that they be allowed to stay. Downs recalled the harsh response of the Union officer.

“If you don’t go right now, I will kill every last one of them,” he said.

After his day’s work, Miller walked six miles to Nicholasville where his family had relocated. He found his wife and children, but his sick son had not survived the journey.

“She’s holding his dead body,” Downs said.

Within the next three weeks, Miller’s wife and two other children perished as well. Miller himself died shortly thereafter, though it is unknown if he died of illness as well.

Downs emphasized the importance of this story, contrasting it with the popular image of the Emancipation as a glorious triumph for freedom. That glorification, he argues, often loses sight of the suffering of those that were actually freed.

“We don’t know the story of how the Civil War turned a population of over four million people into refugees,” he said.

Downs’s research uncovered a serious smallpox epidemic from 1862 to 1870 that killed thousands of freed slaves. While this epidemic exploded, African Americans were crowded into refugee camps, allowing it to decimate their population.

Downs also spoke of how the epidemic reinforced racist stereotypes against African Americans. When comparing the death toll between blacks and whites, many argued that sexual promiscuity and inherent inferiority accounted for the disparity. The New York Times followed this narrative, comparing the destruction of African Americans with the previous demise of Native Americans.

“The negro will soon melt away with his freedom,” it wrote.

This popular narrative ignored the enormous disparity of circumstances at the time. During the Civil War, any smallpox victim was immediately quarantined, seriously limiting the disease’s spread. In refugee camps, however, diseased African Americans had nowhere to go, and the infection quickly spread.

Downs made a point of using the term “refugee” throughout his talk. Most history books fail to use the term, which glosses over the unpleasant reality of the situation, he said.

While freeing the slaves was an enormous victory for justice, focusing solely on that victory ignores the calamitous situation that those oppressed people then faced.

“The story of freedom, the story of emancipation, led to enormous death,” he said.

Featured Image by Amelie Trieu / Heights Editor