Making Moves and Claiming Freedoms: The Navigations and Negotiations of Antebellum Women of Color

AHA Session 159
Saturday, January 9, 2016: 9:00 AM-11:00 AM
Room A601 (Atlanta Marriott Marquis, Atrium Level)
Amrita Chakrabarti Myers, Indiana University Bloomington
Jessica Millward, University of California, Irvine

Session Abstract

This panel will explore the movement and mobility of free and enslaved women of color in various urban spaces in Antebellum America.  Drawing theoretically on the annual theme of “migration,” this panel inserts a local perspective on migration examining the ways in which women of color maintained their fragile freedoms moving within and negotiating with the societies in which they lived. Collectively, these papers will offer a nuanced understanding of the legal, social and economic maneuverings of women of color in the antebellum era. 

In “The Sword in Her Hands: The Legal Maneuvering of Antebellum Louisiana’s Free Women of Color,” Dr. Noël M. Voltz explores free women of color long use of using the antebellum Louisiana court system as a space to pursue and defend their tenuous freedom.  In particular, using Louisiana Supreme Court records, Voltz will highlight the social mobility and sexual agency of free women of color as these women actively used the Louisiana legal system to secure, and at time enhance, their status and to gain and maintain their freedoms.

Next, Dr. Karsonya Wise Whitehead, in her paper titled, “The Civil War Pocket Diaries of Emilie Frances Davis,” will explore the mobility of free black women in antebellum Philadelphia.  Drawing on the pocket diaries of Emilie Frances Davis, a literate mulatto seamstress residing in Philadelphia in the mid-19th century, Whitehead will reconstruct the multilayered and complex experiences of Davis using her “everyday” life as a lens through which to understand the cultural capital and autonomy of Philadelphia’s free women of color and to explore impact that the Civil War had on their community.

The final paper on this panel will be presented by Dr. Amani Thomas Marshall and is titled “’She is a fine seamstress and tailoress’:  Enslaved Women’s Labor and Resistance in Antebellum Charleston.”  This paper will focus on the ways in which enslaved women were inspired by their interactions with free women of color to run away and negotiate their freedoms.  More specifically, Marshall finds that enslaved women, empowered by their artisanal training in high demand professions dominated by free women in Charleston, asserted their control over their labor using their employment skills to run away and live autonomous lives.

This panel will feature commentary by Dr. Jessica Millward, an assistant professor in the Department of History at the University of California, Irvine.  Her research focuses on comparative slavery and emancipation, African Diaspora, gender and the law. Millward’s manuscript Finding Charity Folks: Enslaved and Free Black Women in Maryland will be published in December 2015 by the University of Georgia Press.

The panel will be chaired by Dr. Amita Myers, a preeminent scholar of women of color in the Antebellum era.   Myers’ award winning book, Forging Freedom: Black Women and the Pursuit of Liberty in Antebellum Charleston, was published in 2011 by the University of North Carolina Press and analyzes the ways in which black women in Charleston acquired, defined and defended their own vision of freedom.

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