Black History: Special Delivery!!

Dr. Samuel Cartwright
Dr. Samuel Cartwright (1793 – 1863)

American physician Dr. Samuel Cartwright (1793 – 1863) observed black slaves who fled from captivity and saw an illness.  In 1851 he named the illness, “Drapetomania or the “disease causing Negroes to flee”. He used this diagnosis to explain that black slaves did not really want freedom and that if they did try to escape, they were actually “ill”. Cartwright suggested that the cause of Drapetomania was slave masters treating their slaves in too humane of a manner. He also suggested the illness was further caused by slaves perceiving themselves to be individuals of worth. For Cartwright, the slave’s desire for freedom was an illness and Cartwright felt that he had the cure.

To cure Drapetomania, he recommended “whipping the devil out of them” until slaves became submissive again. “Submissive” was the primary state to which he felt they belonged. Another remedy suggested by Cartwright was having the big toe from both feet severed. He believed that these remedies would cure the disease of wanting to be free. Cartwright believed that enslaved individuals could not and should not rise above their enslaved state. He used the bible to support his assertions. Dr. Cartwright submitted his findings to a Louisiana medical association who accepted his findings. His findings were published and widely circulated. Southern states wholeheartedly accepted his findings and as it helped to justify their own positions as slaveholders. In the Northern states, his findings were ridiculed and an article was published disputing his claims. The split of opinions between the North and the South were a sign of the times. Obviously, Southern slaveholders wanted slavery to continue because it was extremely profitable. The North stood to benefit less from slavery. Similar practices continue to be perpetuated today, just as they did back then with false evidence being created to back racist viewpoints.

Why is it, then, that when an oppressed individual or group seeks freedom from their oppressor, they are labeled? Why instead, aren’t the actions of the oppressor viewed as sick, and unacceptable?