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Annual Meeting Roundup

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Clay Howard attends a session at the 2017 OAH Annual Meeting

When it comes to abolition and emancipation, professional historians and the general public alike have a great deal to say, much of it conflicting and contradictory. Rather than settling on any single or stable narrative, the historiographical fields that speak to the trajectory of slavery’s slow and then sudden dissolution and its aftermath are in great flux even as they stand out for their vibrancy. We hope attendees of this state of the field roundtable will engage the panelists in productive conversations about where historians have been, where they might go, and how their work helps illuminate the present moment, when struggles over the meaning, memory, and implications of slavery’s demise are still deeply fraught. Indeed, in many ways the interpretive challenges and controversies that these fields present for historians and laypeople are exciting precisely because of their thorniness and contemporary relevance.

Considering abolition and emancipation in a global context over the course of the long nineteenth century, panelists are likely to raise as many questions as they answer about the central historical and historiographical dynamics at play. Was abolition a fundamentally radical or conservative movement? How did race and interracialism create space or limit possibilities for imagining new kinds of democratic politics and capitalist formations? How ought we think about the significance of federal legal frameworks of rights and citizenship crafted during Reconstruction, in light of widespread extralegal violence and other coercive forces that perpetuated generations of an immiserated black agricultural working class? Was emancipation a truly transformative break with the past or did it ultimately mark an evolutionary stage in the history of state-sanctioned racial and economic oppression? Does an emphasis on the deeply constrained substance of freedom come at the cost of acknowledging its profoundly significant and arguably revolutionary meaning for the black people who experienced it? To what extent, if at all, does the “freedom narrative” remain a useful paradigm for considering the Civil War and its outcome as the fulcrum of American history? If we consider a conventionally liberal ideological framework to be one that misapprehends abolition and emancipation, what kinds of frameworks might prove more satisfying? How have scholars used new sources and voices to craft histories that challenge existing interpretations, and what other documentary materials offer prospects for future exploration? How might historians best involve and enlighten general audiences and contribute to broader public discourses about abolition and emancipation?

These questions are important ones at any time. But their urgency is especially salient today, as the politics surrounding voting rights, citizenship, racial violence, and economic freedom demonstrate how unsettled and critical so many of the issues raised by the histories of abolition and emancipation remain.

Session Participants

Chair: Joshua Rothman, University of Alabama


  • Stephen Kantrowitz, University of Wisconsin-Madison
  • Chandra Manning, Georgetown University
  • Kate Masur, Northwestern University
  • Manisha Sinha, University of Connecticut
  • Kidada E. Williams, Wayne State University

Joshua D. Rothman is Professor of History and Chair of the Department of History at the University of Alabama. He is the author of numerous books, including Notorious in the Neighborhood: Sex and Families across the Color Line in Virginia, 1787-1861 (University of North Carolina Press, 2003) and Flush Times and Fever Dreams: A Story of Capitalism and Slavery in the Age of Jackson (University of Georgia Press, 2012), the latter of which won the Michael V.R. Thomason Book Award from the Gulf South Historical Association and the Frank L. and Harriet C. Owsley Award from the Southern Historical Association.

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