Distinguished Lecturers
Sharla M. Fett

Sharla M. Fett

Sharla M. Fett is a professor of history at Occidental College in Los Angeles, working in the fields of nineteenth-century Atlantic World slavery, the antebellum U.S. South, and race, gender, and health. She is the author of Working Cures: Healing, Health, and Power on Southern Slave Plantations (2002) and Recaptured Africans: Surviving Slave Ships, Detention, and Dislocation in the Final Years of the Slave Trade (2017). She has also published in the journal Slavery and Abolition and contributed essays to New Studies in the History of American Slavery (2006), edited by Stephanie Camp and Edward Baptist, and Paths of the Atlantic Slave Trade (2010), edited by Ana Lucia Araujo. She has been a teaching partner with the Colored Conventions Project, founded by Gabrielle Foreman at the University of Delaware, and has edited a student-researched exhibit on California's conventions of the 1850s and 1860s, entitled "Equality Before the Law: California Black Convention Activism, 1855-1865."

OAH Lectures by Sharla M. Fett

Between the 1850s and the 1950s, the changing political economy of Black birth shaped the way that African American midwives did their work. Enslaved midwives worked to deliver and preserve Black babies and mothers in the midst of the violence and commodification of chattel slavery. By the early twentieth century, Black midwives worked within a segregated and unequal health care system as the primary caregivers for pregnant and new mothers in Black southern communities. Women trained by older midwives soon encountered regulation under public health care departments that would eventually lead to the elimination of most Black lay midwives. This lecture explores the politics and spirituality of Black midwifery work, giving emphasis to the insights and consciousness Black midwives gained as they maneuvered through hierarchies of racial, class and gender inequality to practice their vocation.

This lecture illuminates a little-known arena of free African American protest again US complicity in the nineteenth-century transatlantic slave trade. Centered in New York and led by James Pennington and the Anglo-African Magazine, protest against the illegal slave trade engaged free Black activists in a critique of US law and foreign policy. Pennington's efforts on behalf of recaptive Africans seized from illegal slave ships reveals new dimensions of Black transatlantic antislavery activism.

This talk explores evidence of how recaptive African shipmates struggled with the aftermath of slave ship incarceration and middle passage trauma during the era of U.S. slave trade suppression. During the mid-19th centuries on journeys from southern US ports to Liberia, recaptives from West and West Central Africa relied upon each other to survive their ordeal and recreate a social life in the face of overwhelming death and dislocation. The lecture explores the prominence of African children and youth in the nineteenth-century contraband slave trade and the significance of age on survival strategies.

This talk explores how the specific conditions of antebellum plantation healing work gave rise to a collective version of enslaved women’s self-reliance. Enslaved women’s doctoring work, taking place within an ongoing struggle with the health agendas of slaveowners, exacted a personal toll while fostering an indigenous analysis of the politics of seeking health under slavery.

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