In an in-depth article, the New York Times features Jim Downs, assistant professor of history, and his new book, “Sick From Freedom: African-American Illness and Suffering During the Civil War and Reconstruction.”
Downs’ book details the public health crisis that left hundreds of thousands of liberated slaves dead shortly after the end of the Civil War. More than 1 million former slaves became sick or died at the moment of freedom, Downs says.
In the article, “Liberation as Death Sentence,” New York Times reporter Jennifer Schuessler says the book is “already being greeted as an important challenge to our understanding of an event that scholars and laypeople alike have preferred to see as an uplifting story of newly liberated people vigorously claiming their long-denied rights.”
The portrait of Downs that accompanies the article was taken by New York Times Photographer Richard Perry at Grant’s Tomb in late May.
The book brings to light a topic that is seldom talked-about and difficult to accept, in part because accurate research on the issue is sparse. In the article, David W. Blight, a professor of history at Yale and the director of the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, describes Downs as “part of a wave of scholars who are sketching out a new, darker history of emancipation.”
Downs, who became interested in this topic as a graduate student at Columbia University, says in the article, “For so long, people were afraid to talk about freed people’s health. They wanted to talk about agency. But if you have smallpox, you don’t have agency. You can’t even get out of bed.”
As Downs sorted through statistical data and research on the victims of the epidemic in preparation for his dissertation, he realized the importance of making the truth known to the public.
“I’ve been alone with these people in the archives. I have a responsibility to tell their stories,” he says in the article.