Human Remains and the Measure of Freedom: Military Medicine and the Reconstruction of Race in the Post-Emancipation United States

Friday, January 6, 2012: 3:10 PM
Miami Room (Chicago Marriott Downtown)
Nancy Bercaw, Smithsonian Institution
This paper explores the United States government’s role in the establishment of a national archive of racialized body parts immediately following the Civil War that remains largely intact in 2011. Today the bodies of 1,744 African Americans and 14,523 American Indians lie catalogued and housed in U.S. government museums—skeletons at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History and wet tissue at the Army’s National Museum of Health and Medicine. These collections, amassed by the U.S. Army between 1867 and 1898, shadow almost precisely a period of voting rights for African American men.

Yet the Army Medical Museum collections of American Indian and African American bodies bring together two nineteenth-century topics usually studied separately: Reconstruction (and the South) and the Indian wars (and the West).  The narrative of Reconstruction centers on issues freedom and the incorporation of non-white citizens into the body politic.  In contrast, the narrative of the Indian Wars tells a story of conquest and the attempt to annihilate non-white peoples based on racist arguments of innate inferiority.  These two national histories, however, did not occur in isolation, but tangibly intersected in the institution of the U.S. Army responsible for commanding both campaigns. The promise of racial inclusion was in direct and immediate dialog with the process of exclusion. 

What is striking about the Army Medical Museum collections after the Civil War is that the curators collected American Indian and African American bodies in very different ways and for different purposes. A close reading of the Museum’s practices demonstrates race-making in action.  In building a collection of “raced” and “non-raced” body parts, the Army Medical Museum endowed the nation with a race laboratory–a national archive—that survives to this day and that has served to frame several generations of different scientific and cultural practices

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