James Downs

James Downs, Associate Professor of History

Associate Professor of History
Joined Connecticut College: 2006

B.A., University of Pennsylvania; M.A., Ph.D., Columbia University

Nineteenth-century United States history
African-American Studies
History of medicine and public health

Contact Jim Downs: jdowns@conncoll.edu

An associate professor of history at Connecticut College, Jim Downs is a historian of the United States. His research examines the history of race and medicine in the 19th century.

Sick from Freedom book published by James DownsHe recently published Sick from Freedom: African-American Illness and Suffering during the Civil War and Reconstruction (Oxford University Press, 2012), which tells the largely unknown story of how many former slaves died at the moment of freedom. Drawing on a number of unexamined records at the National Archives, Downs uncovers a smallpox epidemic that devastated newly freed slaves, and he also reveals how cholera, dysentery and yellow fever threatened the lives of emancipated slaves. Sick from Freedom has been featured in The New York Times, The Guardian, Daily Mail, the BBC, the Joe Madison Show, New Zealand National Public Radio, among others.

Downs was on sabbatical in fall 2012 as a visiting researcher in the History of Science and the W.E.B DuBois Institute for African and African American Research at Harvard University.

In 2011, Downs was a co-organizer for the conference Beyond Freedom: New Directions in the Study of Emancipation, which was sponsored by the Gilder Lehrman Center at Yale University. He is currently co-editor on a volume based on the conference proceedings. Professor Downs has presented his research at the American Association for the History of Medicine, the European Association for the History of Medicine and Health, the Southern Historical Association, the American Historical Association, and the Organization of American Historians.

Downs has also published on the representations of slavery in museums and historic landmarks in the United States, England, and the Bahamas, as well as book chapters on the history of racial categories in the United States, the life of Harriet Jacobs and her daughter Louisa, and on sexuality in the antebellum South. He is currently working on two book projects: the first examines the international outbreak of the 19th century cholera epidemics and the second examines the history of sexuality, particularly the untold story of the Upstairs Lounge Fire in New Orleans. 

In 2011-12, Professor Downs was awarded a Margaret Sheridan Community Learning Award from the College's Holleran Center for Community Action and Public Policy. In the summer and fall of 2010, he received the Mayers Fellowship from the Huntington Library in Pasadena, CA. In 2009, he was awarded a fellowship from the Gilder Lehrman Center at Yale University, an Andrew Mellon fellowship from the Massachusetts Historical Society and a summer institute fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Downs was recently named a Distinguished Lecturer by the Organization of American Historians  (April, 2014).

Downs teaches the following courses: The History of Slavery and Emancipation in the Americas; Narratives of Illness; The History of the United States in the Era of the Civil War and Reconstruction; The History and Politics of Racism and Public Health; Meditations on the History of the South; American Studies; An Introduction to the History of the United States; Historicizing 9/11; and the Environmental History of the U.S. South.

While a graduate student at Columbia, Jim Downs organized a number of conferences on the politics and history of social change. He has published two edited books based on the conference proceedings, Why We Write: The Politics and History of Writing for Social Change, Routledge, 2006, and Taking Back the Academy: History of Activism, History as Activism (co-edited with Jennifer Manion), Routledge, 2005.

Among his published articles are:
  • "Are We All Precious?," 15 December 2009
  • The Chronicle of Higher Education
  • "The Continuation of Slavery: The Experience of Disabled Slaves during Emancipation," Disability Studies Quarterly, Summer 2008, Volume 28, No.3
  • "Ailing Hospitals: Correspondence Reveals History of the Freedmen's Bureau Medical Division," Prologue: Quarterly of the National Archives and Records Administration, Summer 2006, Vol. 38, No. 2
  • "The Other Side of Freedom: Destitution, Disease, and Dependency Among Freedwomen and Their Children During and After the Civil War," in Battle Scars: Gender and Sexuality in the American Civil War, edited by Catherine Clinton and Nina Silber, Oxford University Press, 2006
  • "Reconstructing the American South — After Katrina," History Today, January 2006, vol. 56, issue 1. pp. 16-18

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