Celebrate the Facts!
White nationalisms’ last spasms tear the United States apart, setting citizens against one another in partisan camps, often resulting in violence. The deferred national reckoning with American slavery and its offspring racism and bigotry continue to cost national dignity and economic development. Such suppression of a necessary reconciliation is a required predecessor to evolution as a society. While the public is aware of the horrors and brutality of institutionalized slavery in the United States, the even darker legacy of medical experimentation and murder of disabled slaves exists.
The Lost Cause myth inculcated thought and teaching of American History and colored the perception of slavery. This discredited concept presented an American South with large plantations owned by gentry who gently guided slave labor in a communal effort for the better good. The Lost Cause the cause of the Civil War was the collision of two economic systems: agricultural and industrial, and slavery, part of the causes, was not primary. In this fabled world, great political leaders such as Robert E. Lee, loyal to their home state, objected to federal rule and chose to declare a new republic, free of meddlesome governance. According to this magical scenario, the Civil War became an invasion of the South by an aggressive and brutalist North.
The Lost Cause myth also rests on the idea that slavery is a stage of a necessary evolution of every civilized society and so that the South, by extension, would have gradually evolved into a free culture. Both statements are false.
Large-scale slavery is rare, and there are only two significant examples of slavery persisting over a substantial time. The two instances are the Greek-Roman classical world and on the East coast of the Americas from Brazil to Virginia. Slavery was a minor feature in many places and times. Some historians consider Stalinist Russia’s slave labor camps and the concentration camps of Nazi Germany additions, but these fail the criteria because of the short time durations of each.
The idea that the South would have gradually evolved into a civilized society absent the Civil War and the North’s intervention is empirically false. The Union overcame the Confederacy in 1865 and implemented Reconstruction, where it enforced federal law at gunpoint until 1877. At various points in the Civil Rights era, federal authorities compelled adherence to federal court decisions and legislation. Despite such intervention, the American South remains plagued by racial discrimination and segregation, racial inequality, and African American voting rights repression. To argue the arc of Southern history would have followed better lines absent the Civil War is academically intriguing but fallacious.
Other facts refute the erroneous Lost Cause myth presentation. First, the war was indeed about slavery. The simmering results of deferral to address human bondage after the United States revolution exploded when an unlikely candidate, Abraham Lincoln, won the presidential election of 1860. Lincoln was a revolutionary figure, elected without a plurality, who led the Union to the annihilation of the Confederate government and freed about four million enslaved people in the process.
The horrors of slavery have entered the national discussion. Slave traders bought Africans and legally imported them until 1807, when the United States government outlawed such commerce. After that time, traders bootlegged them as the government rarely enforced that law. Their owners treated Africans and African Americans as semi-skilled livestock, separated, and sold family members, raped them, beat them, outlawed education, and murdered them. Enslavers controlled the marital status of enslaved African Americans to produce their ideal offspring for profit. Such discussion is excellent and healthy for the nation and cultural evolution in general, but some of the most abominable features, the practice of murdering old and disabled slaves and performing medical experiments on them, remain undiscussed.
Many physicians in the United States regarded African Americans as distinctly different in many qualities. North American physicians said African subjects' bodies, brains, and behaviors with quasi- notions of fundamental and inherent racial difference. These medical ideas racialized skin, bones, diseases, physical capabilities, and mental incapacities to justify and defend the institution of slavery.
These included resistance to tropical diseases, hardiness in the heat, resistance to the sun, lower intelligence, and a tendency to laziness. These physicians grew into a specialist grouping and built a group of ‘negro hospitals’ to service enslavers with the added diabolical feature of sketchy medical research. White doctors sent reports of their experiments on slave subjects to medical journals. Doctors often advertised in southern newspapers that they would pay cash for black people suffering from chronic disease. Often slave traders patronized these institutions to bolster their slaves’ appearance so they could command a higher price at auction.
The use of enslaved people for medical experimentation was frequent, with both doctors and medical students eager for experience with actual patients. One of these, Dr. E.S. Bennett, was keen to operate when he was a medical student. In 1817 Bennett attempted to remove a small tumor from the head of a two-year-old slave child owned by his father, and then published the results. Unfortunately, anesthesia was not widely available at this time, so a white subject would have been impossible to acquire.
In 1846 a Louisville, Kentucky physician named S.D. Gross removed half of the jaw of a nine-year-old slave girl named Kitty without anesthetic, tying her limbs down, and published the results. The paper concluded with a self-congratulatory note about how her master had informed him two years later that Kitty was able to chew and swallow.
The most infamous of all experimenters on slaves was J. Marion Sims of Alabama. His cheerleaders called him the ‘father of American Gynecology,’ primarily due to his development of a surgical procedure to address vaginal fistulas. What is less known about Sims is experimented on African American women to develop his procedure, and did not use anesthesia, although there were anesthetics widely used at the time of his work. Sims appeared to feel African American women were more resistant to pain and did not require such, despite frequently lamenting their struggles on the operating table during his surgical procedures.
In the nineteenth century, cadavers for medical education were rare because of religious prohibition, and sometimes procuring dead bodies was illegal. Bodies were so scarce that medical schools did not require a practical anatomy course for a diploma. Occasionally medical students and their instructors ended up robbing graves or simply paying for bodies. Usually, these were the bodies of enslaved people, but sometimes they were the remains of criminals and poor whites. Southern body snatchers often sent the bodies of African Americans to Northern medical schools. Rumors that murderous entrepreneurs murdered blacks and then sold their bodies for experimentation continued to circulate well after the days of slavery, although there is no evidence this was more than a legend.
Slaveholders placed disabled enslaved people in various duties in and out of plantation labor. Some plantation slaveholders assigned compliant elderly enslaved men as drivers for field labor, using the slave community’s respect for its older members to their benefit. Aged women sometimes watched children in the plantation’s nurseries. These nurseries freed valuable labor for other work and included children from one week to five years old. There were places for the aged in these societies, but such places also benefited the owner by freeing labor for more productive work elsewhere and the direct value of the endeavor.
Historians have discovered evidence that enslavers ordered the murder of elderly and disabled slaves who could no longer work. Contemporary evidence is scant but some of this is likely due to the unsavory nature of such acts and the possibility recordkeepers removed the information. Also, discovering historical documentation of anything slave-related from this time is difficult. Spotty census data, dispersed library records, and the lack of digital availability are factors in the difficulty of uncovering empirical data.
Some slavers set their elderly and disabled property free and sent them to Southern cities. This indirect manner of killing enslaved people meant abandoning them with no financial or community support. These people soon perished. Enslavers used this strategy was so much that strict legislation against manumission precluded this practice. This legislation ostensibly protected old and disabled slaves but also insulated the public from the expense of maintaining them.
Slaveholders also abandoned elderly and disabled slaves without sending them away from the plantation. Instead, when enslaved people could no longer work, mainly due to old age or blindness, their white keepers housed them in remote areas in primitive shelters to live alone and fend for themselves. Starvation and death due to disease or the elements were generally the outcome and likely intended to be.
Questions arise when one examines such repugnant episodes in the history of the United States. Repression of education of these truths further insulates people from a fulsome awareness of the history of slavery and race. Such endeavors now fall under the tribal discussion of critical race theory. Legislation outlawing instruction and debate about race bolsters white supremacy and its attendance illnesses. The stain of slavery and its spawn of racism and bigotry will not diminish until a full airing. Deferring such is akin to the series of iterative political compromises in the runup to the Civil War.
The presentation of Confederate symbols in the United States is particularly troubling and an affront to many parties. First, such an exhibition insults people of color and diminishes all humanity. Second, confederate flags are an implicit endorsement of slavery, eugenics, institutionally-sponsored murder, and an insult to all that is good about humanity. Third, preserving places of honor in public spaces for statues of famous Confederates provides an explicit state endorsement of such horrors.
The white nationalist excuse ‘heritage not hate,’ properly translated, means ‘heritage of hate.’
Michael Donnelly investigates societal concerns with an untribal approach - to limit the discussion to the facts derived from primary sources so the reader can make more informed decisions.