Thursday, January 11, 2018

Balancing interests

In today’s post, I will share how I ultimately landed on the research project that became my book.  Like many of your stories, I imagine, it is one that involves dedicated teachers, visceral reactions to the material they taught me, a bit of luck, and a willingness to make adjustments to my plans along the way.

Before entering Tulane as a bright-eyed undergraduate, I knew I loved history and wanted to major in it, but I also planned to go to law school when I finished college. My love for history only grew as I began my studies. I took a course during my sophomore year of college on slavery and freedom in the antebellum South taught by Dr. Betty Wood, a visiting scholar from the University of Cambridge.  I was hooked.  I remember feeling so frustrated by my history education to that point and angry that I knew practically nothing about the system of chattel slavery that existed for so much of the history of the European colonies in America and the United States.  I read Solomon Northup’s narrative, recently made famous by the movie Twelve Years a Slave.  I read scholarly analyses of slavery and debated its meaning in class. The indignation of not knowing the extent or the horrors of this topic lit a fire under me that lingered long after my initial exposure in Dr. Wood’s class.  I imagine that other researchers must have similar stories of being drawn to the topics left out of high school history courses. 

After a couple of years of college, my interest in law school waned.  I was still drawn to the study of law, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to be a lawyer.  If I’m being completely honest, I’m not sure that I had a good sense of what being a lawyer was actually like, either.  I didn’t want to spend three years away from full-time reading and studying history (though I recognize now that law school does involve quite a bit of history, too!). While having these doubts about law school, I had the great fortune to take an American Legal History class with the late Dr. Judith Schafer.  Dr. Schafer made everything click.  I realized I could combine my interests in history and law by pursuing a graduate degree in legal history.

Dr. Schafer was also a scholar of the legal history of slavery, so her course introduced me to this particular sub-field.  While I was searching for a senior thesis topic, Dr. Schafer sent me to meet with the late Marie Windell (an archivist at the University of New Orleans, where the manuscript records of the Louisiana Supreme Court are housed).  With Ms. Windell’s advice, I wrote a senior thesis on a Louisiana Supreme Court case, Eulalie and her children v. Long & Mabry (9 La. Ann. 9 (1854)), which has since become the subject of the brilliant plenary address (at the ASLH meeting in Miami in 2013) and an article by the most recent ASLH President, Rebecca J. Scott (“Social Facts, Legal Fictions, and the Attribution of Slave Status: The Puzzle of Prescription”, Law and History Review, 35:1(2017): 9-30).  My senior thesis was my first effort at archival research, and I loved it.

With some basic research skills in hand, and my newfound passion for issues related to slavery and freedom, I applied to graduate school.  I was delighted to be accepted to the Ph.D. program at Duke, where I planned to work with Laura Edwards and Peter Wood.  That part of my plan worked out.  My tentative dissertation project idea?  Not so much.  At the time, I had hoped to shift my interests in slavery, freedom, and law from the nineteenth century to the eighteenth.  I was fascinated with the seeming contradictions between the rhetoric of the Revolution and the existence of chattel slavery among the nation’s founders.  Like many students, I discovered that a few other scholars had thought about this issue, so I returned to the drawing board. 

The influence of my former mentor, Judy Schafer, made a major difference in the trajectory of my career for a second time.  She emailed me about the St. Louis Circuit Court Historical Records Project, which includes hundreds of freedom suit case files that had recently been scanned and made available online: a grad student’s dream! (As a side note, in addition to the freedom suits files, the Project also contains collections of cases related to Native Americans, Lewis and Clark, and the fur trade.)  Although I wrote my senior thesis on a nineteenth-century topic, I continued to want to look into the earlier era, but I also needed a masters’ thesis topic for the first-year research seminar I was taking that semester. 

I decided to give the project a try. I soon discovered that this nineteenth-century topic allowed me to dive into the same core issue that sparked my interest in the American Revolution: the relationship between slavery and freedom.  St. Louis was a border city on the Mississippi River with a relatively small—but powerful—elite slaveholding population.  Its location and its population made the city a crossroads between slavery and freedom.  The relationship of St. Louis to the free state of Illinois, for example, raised important questions for the courts. St. Louis judges and juries had to grapple with interstate comity issues in a region with wide variations in personal status.  The richness of the freedom suit files is undeniable. Its vast material on the lives and experiences of enslaved people continues to enthrall me to this day.  Once I read the case files and began writing about them, I knew I had found my long-term project.  Twelve years later, I published my book on the same topic.

In my next post, I will discuss the challenges of balancing feedback from a variety of sources in the writing and publishing process.