Published on Oct 5, 2016
Sarah Gronningsater, PhD'14, assistant professor of history, Caltech, discusses her research with Lori Dajose of Pasadena Now. Sarah's first book,The Arc of Abolition: The Children of Gradual Emancipation and the Origins of National Freedom, is under contract with the University of Pennsylvania Press. An except from that interview follows.
Your work is centered on the eighteenth and nineteenth century. What do you focus on within that time period?
I examine the states where slavery was abolished before the Civil War through political and legal processes that took decades. I’m very interested in how these processes unfolded, especially in New York State. In particular, I focus on the children of slaves. Between 1780 and 1804, five northern states, including New York, passed laws freeing children who were born to slaves after a certain date. Although these children were technically free, they had to work as servants for their mother's masters until adulthood. Because they were born into this "in-between" status, they were particularly attuned to the workings of law and politics.
I argue that these children helped topple slavery throughout the United States. They became adults in the decades before the Civil War and actively pushed northern politicians to become more anti-slavery. They did everything possible to help southern slaves achieve freedom, through the Underground Railroad and by instigating court cases and convincing lawmakers to pass stronger anti-slavery laws. They knew from their experiences as children how to use law and politics to get what they wanted.
How did you become interested in this topic?
I’ve always loved African American literature and history. I majored in history and literature at Harvard and wrote my undergraduate thesis about the Massachusetts 54th Regiment, one of the first northern regiments of black soldiers. That’s where my interest in northern black politics started. After college, I got my doctorate at the University of Chicago, where I studied American history with Tom Holt and Amy Stanley, two outstanding scholars of slavery and emancipation, law, and politics.
What does a historian's day-to-day schedule look like?
The work of a historian still requires the ability to access archives in person. You can find important material on law and politics in newspapers, but many newspapers in, say, tiny towns in rural New York, have not been digitized. Those local sources hold some of the best evidence supporting my arguments, such as details about small legal cases involving slaves or locally important political controversies. My work requires me to drive around and visit county clerks' offices and very small historical societies, which may only be open one day a week. You have to be willing to pound the pavement a little.
Why does your work focus on New York?
When I started graduate school, I did not plan on working on New York history specifically. But I soon learned that New York State was the site of largest emancipation of American slaves before the Civil War, and there were archives full of fascinating information about the children of gradual emancipation. My family has lived throughout [New York] for many generations. In an amazing connection that I only discovered after the fact, the playground that I used to play in as a child was actually a site where a group of free African American households had settled before Central Park was established.