Rusert’s New Book Explores ‘Fugitive Science’ in Pre-Civil War Era

Britt Rusert
Britt Rusert
Book cover

Britt Rusert, Afro-American studies, has published her first book, “Fugitive Science: Empiricism and Freedom in Early African American Culture,” which examines an overlooked chapter of the pre-Civil War United States in which black abolitionists used science to support their fight for emancipation.

“Fugitive Science” uncovers the dynamic experiments of a group of black writers, artists, and performers and their use of science to debunk white supremacist arguments used by racist scientists, doctors and pro-slavery politicians to justify their positions.

At a time when “scientist” was just coming into use as a word and most whites thought science beyond the capability of blacks – blacks were generally excluded from scientific training – a number of blacks publicly embraced science, among them noted abolitionist and former slave Frederick Douglass who particularly targeted polygenesis, the contention that the races had separate origins and blacks were inferior.

Noted among others represented in the book, James McCune Smith, the first African American to hold a medical degree (he earned it in Scotland because he was barred from medical school here) used statistical data analysis to expose the untruth of studies alleging freedom from slavery would actually shorten the lives of black Americans.

“I think they were really railing against the white supremacist hijacking of natural science,” Rusert said.

The long history of black Americans’ disaffection for medicine and science promulgated by white supremacists stretches from the pseudoscience of phrenology to plantation medical experiments in the antebellum years to the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiments of 1932-79.

“The history is pretty grim and can make anyone distrustful of medical science,” she said.

But the facts of “Fugitive Science” show black American culture embracing the sciences, particularly astronomy, mathematics and agriculture. And free black activists of the antebellum era “were fierce advocates of science oriented toward social justice,” Rusert said.

“Today, they would probably be in the school of people interested in the uneven effects of climate change – how it disproportionally affects minority communities,” she said.

“Fugitive Science” is published by New York University Press.