NEGRO CONSUMPTION Proslavery polemics often emphasized the assertion that blacks were robust, healthy specimens, well suited for the rigors of slavery in the South. Analysis of plantation records, however, indicate that this picture of disease-immune Afro-American slaves is grossly inaccurate. Contrary to popular tradition, disease in the antebellum South did not discriminate between black and white. As historian Kenneth Stampp has written, "wherever it was unhealthful for whites to live it was also unhealthful for Negroes."
One of the most common maladies suffered by the black slave was "Negro Consumption," the popular designation for tuberculosis. Malaria, yellow fever and Asiatic cholera were also diseases feared by slave and slaveowner alike. Severe diarrhea and dysentery, often referred to as the "bloody flux," plagued slaves during the Summer months, while the poorly clothed and improperly housed slaves in the Upper South were particularly susceptible to pleurisy, pneumonia and pleuropneumonia during the Winter. Deficient slave diets on many plantations (which was more common than usually supposed) resulted in widespread instances of hookworm infection, pellagra, beriberi and scurvy.
Similarly, improper food balance (especially a lack of calcium) contributed to massive tooth decay among slaves. Tooth decay, coupled with lack of professional dental care, belies the traditional stereotype of grinning black slaves with perfect sets of glistening white teeth. This stereotype is further belied by the fact that the basic inhumanity of the slave regime gave the typical slave little to smile about. In fact, the image of happy-go-lucky slaves cannot be reconciled with the many cases of mental and nervous disorders prevalent among the black slave population.