School of Humanities and Sciences
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Kathryn Meyer Olivarius
Assistant Professor of History
Current Research and Scholarly InterestsI am an historian of nineteenth-century America, interested primarily in the antebellum South, Greater Caribbean, slavery, and disease. My research seeks to understand how epidemic yellow fever disrupted Deep Southern society. Nearly every summer, this mosquito-borne virus killed up to ten percent of the urban population. But it also generated culture and social norms in its fatal wake. Beyond the rigid structures of race and unfreedom in Deep Southern society, I argue there was alternate, if invisible, hierarchy at work, with “acclimated” (immune) people at the top and a great mass of “unacclimated” (non-immune) people awaiting their brush with yellow fever languishing in social and professional purgatory. About half of all people died in the acclimating process.
In New Orleans, alleged-imperviousness or vulnerability to epidemic disease evolved into an explanatory tool for success or failure in commodity capitalism, and a justification for a race- and ethnicity-based social hierarchy where certain people were decidedly less equal than others. Disease justified highly asymmetrical social and labor relations, produced politicians apathetic about the welfare of their poor or recently-immigrated constituents, and accentuated the population’s xenophobic, racist, pro-slavery, and individualist proclivities. Alongside skin color, acclimation-status, I argue, played a major role in determining a person’s position, success, and sense of belonging in antebellum New Orleans.
Most of all, disease provided the tacit justification for who did what work during cotton and sugar production, becoming the essence of an increasingly elaborate and tortuous justification for widespread and permanent black slavery. In the Deep Southern view, only enslaved black people could survive work like cane cutting, swamp clearing, and cotton picking. In fact, proslavery theorists argued, black slavery was positively natural, even humanitarian, for it protected the health of whites—and thus the nation writ large—insulating them from diseased-labor and spaces that would kill them.
By fusing health with capitalism in my forthcoming book Necropolis, I will present a new model—beyond the toxic fusion of white supremacy with the flows of global capitalism—for how power operated in Atlantic society.
I am also interested in historical notions of consent (sexual or otherwise); slave revolts in the United States and the Caribbean; anti- and pro-slavery thought; class and ethnicity in antebellum America; the history of life insurance and environmental risk; comparative slave systems; technology and slavery; the Haitian Revolution; and boosterism in the American West.