Year of Award


Document Type


Degree Type

Master of Arts (MA)

Degree Name


Department or School/College

Department of History

Committee Chair

Kyle G. Volk

Commitee Members

Anya Jabour, George Price


race, racism, racial prejudice, disease, abolition, colorphobia


University of Montana

Subject Categories

Disease Modeling | Disorders of Environmental Origin | History of Science, Technology, and Medicine | Intellectual History | Mental Disorders | Other Mental and Social Health | Political History | Social History | United States History


Focusing on the mid-1830s through 1865, this thesis explores colorphobia—the irrational fear and hatred of black people otherwise known as racial prejudice—as a reform tactic adopted by abolitionists. It argues that colorphobia played a pivotal role in the radical abolitionist reform agenda for promoting anti-slavery, immediate emancipation, equal rights, and black advancement. By framing racial prejudice as a disease, abolitionists believed connotations, stigmas, and fears of illness would elicit more attention to the rapidly increasing racial prejudice in the free North and persuade prejudiced white Americans into changing their ways. Abolitionists used parallels to cholera, choleraphobia (fear of cholera), and hydrophobia (fear of water, a reference to rabies), to legitimate colorphobia during a period of epidemics and immense fear of disease, and played off of nineteenth-century disease understandings to make their argument more persuasive. Burgeoning free black populations added to the heightened sense of terror and paranoia because of stereotypes that claimed African Americans spread diseases. Colorphobia produced two very different reactions—the use of the idea of negrophobia by anti-abolitionists in the U.S. and a transnational abolitionist response. Anti-abolitionists responded with their own disease adapted from the abolitionist agenda. “Negrophobia,” once interchangeably used with colorphobia, became known as “the disease of abolition.” By insinuating that abolitionists were crazed over elevating the black population, anti-abolitionists hoped to maintain the racial status quo and discredit abolitionists. The use of negrophobia also revealed white anxieties over the future of an equal America and provided social commentary on the free black population. By contrast to American anti-abolitionists, British and Canadian abolitionists joined American abolitionists in the battle against colorphobia and turned racial prejudice into a transnational problem. British abolitionists denounced racial prejudice in their writings to support the fight for immediate emancipation and equal rights, while Canada spoke out against colorphobia as it spread into its provinces. This thesis reveals the centrality of colorphobia to the abolitionist reform agenda and its significance to the movement. It shows how disease rhetoric advanced the desires of a small reform group, and allowing colorphobia to play a central role in emancipation and equal rights.



© Copyright 2016 April J. Gemeinhardt