Doctoring Freedom: The Politics of African American Medical Care in Slavery and Emancipation

By McMillen, Sally G. | The Journal of Southern History, May 2014 | Go to article overview

Doctoring Freedom: The Politics of African American Medical Care in Slavery and Emancipation


McMillen, Sally G., The Journal of Southern History


Doctoring Freedom: The Politics of African American Medical Care in Slavery and Emancipation. By Gretchen Long. John Hope Franklin Series in African American History and Culture. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012. Pp. [xiv], 234. $37.50, ISBN 978-0-8078-3583-8.)

To date, the history of medical care of African Americans has received limited scholarly attention. Gretchen Long helps address this shortage in her account of black medical care before, during, and after the Civil War. She does not offer an institutional history or an examination of specific diseases that affected African Americans. Instead, she presents a "holistic exploration of African American medical culture," showing how the health care of blacks became contested territory as they struggled to assert authority over the care of their bodies (p. 8). Most of her story is southern, but Long also examines black medical care and health-care providers in the late-nineteenth-century Northeast. While Doctoring Freedom: The Politics of African American Medical Care in Slavery and Emancipation confirms common assumptions about the impact of race on black medical care, it offers some fresh analysis.

The opening chapter on antebellum health care of slaves covers familiar ground. Long shows how slaves were often caught between the remedies offered by white physicians and those by traditional folk healers. Plantation owners evinced interest in the health care of their slaves, though less from humane concerns than from economic motives to ensure the well-being of their labor force. In the North, abolitionists addressed slaves' medical issues and physical conditions in order to promote the antislavery agenda, highlighting, for instance, the sexual abuse of slave women and shocking images of enslaved people assaulted by the lash.

Two of Long's most interesting chapters cover health care and the well-being of so-called contraband and black troops during the Civil War. She demonstrates that "medical care played a critical role in the African American wartime journey from slavery to freedom" (p. 68). Contrabands and black soldiers perceived health and medical care as central issues in their struggle to claim freedom. Fleeing the South during the war did not necessarily ensure blacks better health; frequently, the opposite occurred. Often they were consigned to crowded, unsanitary refugee or army camps where they succumbed to numerous diseases.

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