The three papers included in this panel share several themes significant to new directions in the history of women of color in North America and the Caribbean.
First, all three papers are concerned with the importance of networks, and the relationship between networks and localities. In these papers, networks sustain women’s claims to freedom, and networks are closely associated with places. Terri Snyder finds, for example, that Jane Webb and her daughter Elisha strengthened their positions in 18th century courtrooms–rarely hospitable to women of color–by drawing on local knowledge to support their claims to justice. For Elisha, her mother’s networks in Virginia eventually intervened to secure her freedom in New Hampshire. Elizabeth Neidenbach’s research in the wills of refugees from St. Domingue uncovers women’s networks expressed in the streets and neighborhoods of New Orleans–networks that reach back to the island home left behind. Not only did these networks help refugee women survive, they played a significant role in shaping the culture of the city. Finally, Sharon Wood’s research underscores the importance of African American-controlled space to the emergence of a black public sphere. Property in Illinois owned by Priscilla, a former slave, became the meeting place when leading white men of St. Louis sought to suppress African American organizing by shutting off their access to space.
Finally, all three papers are concerned with methodologies of doing history and biography at the intersections of race and gender in early North America. Focusing on relatively ordinary women of color, each paper aims to recover the lives of particular women and integrate them into history. Until very recently, it has been a truism that the life stories of unlettered, enslaved, and free women of color of the 17th, 18th, and early 19th centuries must remain unwritten because the sources to uncover their lives did not exist. Yet each of these papers, by imaginative use of primary sources and diligent linking of records across national, colonial, and state borders, challenges that claim, giving voice and flesh to women whose lives would otherwise remain fragmented among scattered documents.
This session addresses audiences interested in the histories of women, slavery and freedom, and geographical and biographical approaches to history.