Animating Human Rights: Animal Histories from Abolition to the Long Civil Rights Movement

AHA Session 10
Thursday, January 4, 2018: 1:30 PM-3:00 PM
Columbia 9 (Washington Hilton, Terrace Level)
Jon T. Coleman, University of Notre Dame
Brett Mizelle, California State University, Long Beach

Session Abstract

Over the past three decades, historians have written animals into history. Collectively, this scholarship analyzes transnational histories of human-animal entanglements in two interconnected ways: it examines the history of social and cultural thought about animals; and it analyzes the significance of actual animals as social, cultural, economic, ecological, and epidemiological agents of historical change. Our session seeks to build upon this interdisciplinary scholarship by examining the role that animals played in American reform traditions from the abolition movement to the long civil rights movement.

This session explores how African American and white reformers used the treatment of animals to critique capitalism and racism from the eighteenth to twentieth centuries. The inclusion of animals in the history of American reform illuminates how historical actors debated questions of biblical dominion and kinship, as well as the contentious question of the human-animal boundary. These reformers mapped their visions for a humane nation onto the bodies of animals, thereby transforming racist notions of the shared biological inferiority of African Americans and animals into a battle cry for human equality. As proponents for the inseparability of humanity and humane treatment, these reformers helped fuel the rise of the organized animal welfare movement, which flourished nationwide after the Civil War, and the emergent civil rights movement at the turn of the twentieth century. As such, this session emphasizes the shared histories of human and animal rights discourses.

The three presentations in our session offer a close examination of the intersection of animals, race, and reform at three moments in American history: the early antislavery movement; Reconstruction; and the civil rights movement from World War I to World War II. Together, they plot a trajectory of the discourse of the treatment of animals while contextualizing attitudes toward animals amid the shifting cultural terrain of the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries. In “Animals and Critiques of Capitalism in Early Antislavery Writings,” Joshua Kercsmar investigates the ways that early antislavery writers (c. 1770–1840) drew parallels between slavery and the exploitation of animals as part of their larger attacks on speculative capitalism. Paula Tarankow’s paper, "The Horse and the Preacher: Romances of Reunion in Animal Advocacy Tales from the New South," joins the stories of a highly trained horse, Beautiful Jim Key, his master and former slave William Key, and the Baptist preacher and former slave Richard Carroll, who travelled extensively throughout the South and braided the message of kindness to animals with the discourses of the Lost Cause and racial uplift. And, finally, Janet Davis’s presentation, “‘Vast Good for Righteousness’: Animal Welfare, Human Rights, and the Work of Frederick Rivers Barnwell in Texas, 1914-1945,” investigates the inextricably linked animal and human rights activities of an African American animal advocate in Jim Crow Texas. Frederick Rivers Barnwell traveled widely by automobile throughout Texas and the Lower South as a field officer for the American Humane Education Society. Throughout Barnwell’s long career, animal advocacy offered a relatively safe space to critique white supremacy.

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