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Archives of Freedom: Fugitive Science in Antebellum Black Newspapers

Britt Rusert

Associate Professor, University of Massachusetts Amherst

Fugitive Science: Empiricism and Freedom in Early African American Culture (NYU Press, 2017) traces a forgotten history of black resistance to the ascendency of racial science in the nineteenth century. Beginning in the late eighteenth century, naturalists, medical doctors, comparative anatomists, and a variety of gentleman scientists became increasingly interested in the construction of human taxonomies that justified regimes of settler colonialism and enslavement in the Americas. Enslaved and indigenous people were easy targets for human experiments because of their capture and confinement within spaces like the plantation, the slave ship, and later, the reservation. Their bodies were also required as embodied “proofs” of the racial hierarchies being imagined and constructed in the minds of white settlers. While the history of scientific and medical exploitation is a dark and unsettling story, one that poignantly illustrates the nature of racial subjection in the Americas more broadly, it was not without its opponents. Indeed, at every turn in the history of racialized experimentation, we are able to locate subjects who were resisting, challenging, and refusing the conditions of the their exploitation.


Fugitive Science seeks to trace the history of anti-racism as it intersected with and opposed racist science, focusing on the late eighteenth-century up to the coming of the Civil War. It follows African American responses to racial science, from David Walker’s 1829 Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World to James McCune Smith’s 1859 rejoinder to the theories of the American school of ethnology in the Anglo-African Magazine. But the project also seeks to trace a vibrant genealogy of black science itself, including engagements with fields that had no particular relationship to the sciences of human difference. These included black astronomical treatises, writings and lectures on botany, chemistry, and what we would today call environmental science. Rather than eschewing science as a whole, African American intellectuals, activists, and artists were interested in how the “new sciences” of the second scientific revolution might be linked to race revolution. This genealogy of science oriented toward emancipation rather than subjection is what I call fugitive science.

Black newspapers and periodicals were a particularly rich resource for my research into the ways that African Americans engaged and disseminated scientific knowledge in the antebellum period. Scholars have often neglected or just missed the early history of African American science and medicine because it can be rarely found in the documentation and archives held by scientific and medical institutions. But just because African Americans were almost completely excluded from institutions of scientific and medical training and learning does not mean that they did not participate in the production of scientific knowledge. It does mean, however, that we need to look to different kinds of sources and archives in order to chronicle black science and medicine in the age of slavery and, later, during the age of Jim Crow segregation.

For example, antebellum black newspapers published original scientific treatises by African American writers, and editors like Frederick Douglass also reprinted excerpts from natural histories and other scientific texts as a way of giving African American readers access to the scientific knowledge of the day. The June 2, 1848, edition of Frederick Douglass’ the North Star ran “Telescope, and the Microscope” on its front page, an article excerpted from A Series of Discourses on the Christian Revelation Viewed in Connection with Modern Astronomy, a popular collection of sermons by the Scottish minister, Thomas Chalmers. A bound book like that written by Chalmers may have been too expensive or simply too impractical to purchase, but a newspaper was cheap and could be recirculated easily to family and friends. Crucial sites for the coverage of political and social issues of the day, black newspapers could double as educational primers and textbooks for readers.

African American periodicals routinely ran treatises on optical instruments and also reprinted philosophical meditations on the cultural—and existential—significance of instruments like the telescope and the microscope. Optical instruments, the Liberator suggested, offered a window onto new and previously unknown worlds both on Earth and across the galaxy, but they also forced society to meditate on and ask about the place of the human in (and beyond) our world.


Finally, while Fugitive Science focuses more on natural science than medicine and health, there remains much to be done to uncover the medicinal and healing practices of enslaved nominally free people. The pages of the first African American newspaper, Freedom’s Journal, include advertisements for pharmacists, new patent medicines, and women healers, including an “Indian Doctress” named Sarah Green.

Recent scholarship on the British-Jamaican healer and nurse, Mary Seacole, should further encourage research into Afro-diasporic healing practices and traditions as they are reflected in early Caribbean newspapers and periodicals. [1] The advertising pages of African American newspapers would be a great place to start for scholars seeking to find other black healers and health practitioners in the period.


[1] Christopher Taylor, Empire of Neglect: The West Indies in the Wake of British Liberalism (Duke Press, 2018); On the British-Bermudian, Mary Prince, see Andrea Stone, Black Well-Being: Health and Selfhood in Antebellum Black Literature (University Press of Florida, 2016).

Britt Rusert is Associate Professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst in the W. E. B. Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies. She is the author of Fugitive Science: Empiricism and Freedom in Early African American Culture (New York University Press, 2017) and co-editor of W. E. B. Du Bois’s Data Portraits: Visualizing Black America (Princeton Architectural Press, 2018), a collection of the visual graphics Du Bois and his students at Atlanta University prepared for the 1900 Paris Exposition. Her research and teaching focus on black speculative fiction and visual culture, science and technology studies, gender and sexuality, and critical theory, especially Marxism, psychoanalysis, and black radical thought. 

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