James T. Downs

James T. Downs

Associate Professor of History
Interim Director of the American Studies Program

Joined Connecticut College: 2006

B.A., University of Pennsylvania
M.A., Ph.D., Columbia University


U.S. History

African-American Studies

History of medicine and public health

Jim Downs is a historian of the United States. His current book project, "The Laboring Dead: From Subjugation to Science in Global History," under contract with Harvard University Press, investigates how colonialism, slavery, and the American Civil War contributed to the development of epidemiology. He was recently an Andrew W. Mellon New Directions Fellow at Harvard University, where he gained training in medical anthropology. While at Harvard, Downs was also a fellow at The Weatherhead Initiative on Global History.

In 2016, Downs published Connexions: Histories of Race and Sex in North America (University of Illinois Press), which he co-edited with Jennifer Brier and Jennifer L Morgan, and Stand By Me: The Forgotten History of Gay Liberation (Basic Books).

Stand By Me explains how the outbreak of HIV in the early 1980s caused many historians, journalists and others to portray the 1970s as a period of unfettered sex in order to explain the outbreak of HIV in the 1980s. As a result, we have a diluted picture of the 1970s. HIV changed how we narrated the history of the 1970s. Stand by Me corrects this misinterpretation by uncovering forgotten episodes from the decade.? Stand by Me by James Downs

In 2012, Downs published Sick from Freedom: African-American Illness and Suffering during the Civil War and Reconstruction (Oxford University Press, 2012), which tells the largely unknown story of how many former slaves died at the moment of freedom. Drawing on a number of unexamined records at the National Archives, Downs uncovers a smallpox epidemic that devastated newly freed slaves, and he also reveals how cholera, dysentery and yellow fever threatened the lives of emancipated slaves. Sick from Freedom has been featured in The New York Times, The Guardian, Daily Mail, the BBC, the Joe Madison Show, New Zealand National Public Radio, among others.

In 2011, Downs was a co-organizer for the conference Beyond Freedom: New Directions in the Study of Emancipation, which was sponsored by the Gilder Lehrman Center at Yale University. He is currently co-editor on a volume based on the conference proceedings. Professor Downs has presented his research at the American Association for the History of Medicine, the European Association for the History of Medicine and Health, the Southern Historical Association, the American Historical Association, and the Organization of American Historians. Downs was recently named a Distinguished Lecturer by the Organization of American Historians  (April, 2014).

Sick from Freedom book published by James Downs Downs has also published on the representations of slavery in museums and historic landmarks in the United States, England, and the Bahamas, as well as book chapters on the history of racial categories in the United States, the life of Harriet Jacobs and her daughter Louisa, and on sexuality in the antebellum South. He is currently working on two book projects: the first examines the international outbreak of the 19th century cholera epidemics and the second examines the history of sexuality, particularly the untold story of the Upstairs Lounge Fire in New Orleans. 

Downs was a visiting fellow in the History of Science and the W.E.B DuBois Institute for African and African American Research at Harvard University in 2012. In 2011-12, Professor Downs was awarded a Margaret Sheridan Community Learning Award from the College's Holleran Center for Community Action and Public Policy. In the summer and fall of 2010, he received the Mayers Fellowship from the Huntington Library in Pasadena, CA. In 2009, he was awarded a fellowship from the Gilder Lehrman Center at Yale University, an Andrew Mellon fellowship from the Massachusetts Historical Society and a summer institute fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Downs teaches the following courses: The History of Slavery and Emancipation in the Americas; Narratives of Illness; Nineteenth Century America; Historical Amnesia; The History of the United States in the Era of the Civil War and Reconstruction; The History and Politics of Racism and Public Health; Meditations on the History of the South; American Studies; An Introduction to the History of the United States, and Science to Subjugation in Global History.

While a graduate student at Columbia, Jim Downs organized a number of conferences on the politics and history of social change. He has published two edited books based on the conference proceedings, Why We Write: The Politics and History of Writing for Social Change, Routledge, 2006, and Taking Back the Academy: History of Activism, History as Activism (co-edited with Jennifer Manion), Routledge, 2005.

He has published articles in the New York Times, Time Magazine, Chronicle of Higher Education, Huffington Post, New Republic, Slate, Salon, and Vice.

Published articles and book chapters:

  • “With Only a Trace: Same-Sex Sexual Desire and Violence on Slave Plantations, 1607-1865, in Jennifer Brier, Jim Downs, and Jennifer Morgan, eds., Connexions: Histories of Race and Sex in North America, University of Illinois Press, 2016
  • #BlackLivesMatter: “Toward an Algorithm of Black Suffering during the Civil War and Reconstruction”, J19: The Journal of Nineteenth Century Americanists, Forum on Cultural Meaning of Suffering, winter 2016
  • “Who Got Bloody?: The Cultural Meaning of Blood during the Civil War and Reconstruction,” in Kimberly Anne Coles, Ralph Bauer, Zita Nunes, Carla Peterson, eds., The Cultural Politics of Blood, Palgrave MacMillan, 2014
  • “Film Roundtable: 12 Years a Slave,” (with Natalie Zemon Davis, Scott Nelson, Susan O’Donovan, and Margaret Washington) Civil War History, Vol. LX No. 3
  • " ‘Not Without My Daughter’: The Postwar Underground World of Harriet and Louisa Jacobs” in Sally McMillen and Michele Gillespie, eds., North Carolina Women: Their Lives and Times (University of Georgia Press, 2014)
  • “The Horror Upstairs” (with Elizabeth Dias), Time Magazine, 1 July 2013
  • “Dying for Freedom,” The New York Times, 6 January 2013
  • “The Art of Medicine: Emancipation, Sickness, and Death during the American Civil War,” The Lancet, November 10, 2012, Vol. 380, Number 9854
  • “Her Life, My Past: Rosina Downs and the Proliferation of Racial Categories after the American Civil War,” in Jason Philips, ed., Storytelling, History, and the Postmodern South (Louisiana State University Press, 2013)
  • “Picturing Slavery: The Perils and Promise of Representations of Slavery in the United States, the Bahamas, and England” in Douglas J. Hall, et al, Slavery, Memory and Identity: National Representations and Global Legacies (Pickering and Chatto Publishers, 2012)
  • “Emancipated into Illness,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, 3 June 2012
  • "Are We All Precious?," 15 December 2009, The Chronicle of Higher Education
  • "The Continuation of Slavery: The Experience of Disabled Slaves during Emancipation," Disability Studies Quarterly, Summer 2008, Volume 28, No.3
  • "Ailing Hospitals: Correspondence Reveals History of the Freedmen's Bureau Medical Division," Prologue: Quarterly of the National Archives and Records Administration, Summer 2006, Vol. 38, No. 2
  • "The Other Side of Freedom: Destitution, Disease, and Dependency Among Freedwomen and Their Children During and After the Civil War," in Battle Scars: Gender and Sexuality in the American Civil War, edited by Catherine Clinton and Nina Silber, Oxford University Press, 2006
  • "Reconstructing the American South — After Katrina," History Today, January 2006, vol. 56, issue 1. pp. 16-18

Visit the history department website.

Majoring in American Studies.

Majoring in History.

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Mailing Address

James T. Downs
Connecticut College
Box #5328
270 Mohegan Ave.
New London, CT 06320


302 Winthrop Hall