TIE Podcast Spring Semester Preview: Dr. Tamika Nunley on How Black Women Defined Liberty in 19th-Century America

Silhouette of a Black woman against a red background, representative of the women highlighted in Tamika Nunley's book "Threshold of Liberty"
Book cover of "At the Threshold of Liberty: Women, Slavery, and Shifting Identities in Washington, D.C." by Tamika Nunley

In TIE’s latest Spring Semester podcast episode of 2023, Dr. Tamika Nunley, who is Associate Professor and Sandler Family Faculty Fellow at Cornell University, sits down with TIE Editor in Chief Alexia Hudson-Ward to discuss Tamika’s award-winning book At the Threshold of Liberty: Women, Slavery, and Shifting Identities in Washington, D.C. (reviewed in the May 2022 issue of Choice). Seeking to expand the scope of Black women’s history beyond traditional narratives of either achievement or brutality, Tamika explores the history of everyday Black women and girls. She settled on Washington, DC, as the locus for her study, given its rich history as home to many multifaceted Black families, going all the way back to its earliest history as the nation’s capital. Her humanizing account draws on diverse sources, spanning police records to the letters of First Ladies, to recover the stories of women engaged in illicit activities, ranging from gambling to sex work, who sought to define liberty on their own terms in the 19th-century United States. Her account is one of survival, depicting how generations of Black women survived through especially violent circumstances, a story that is sure to resonate with audiences today.

Listen to the full conversation below:

TIE Podcast · Dr. Tamika Nunley on How Black Women Defined Liberty in 19th-Century America

Dr. Tamika Nunley is a historian whose research and teaching focuses on African American women, slavery, the early Republic, and the Civil War. She is a lifetime member of the Association of Black Women Historians and serves on the editorial boards for multiple academic journals, including Civil War History, The Journal of Southern History, and the Journal of the Civil War Era. Her latest book, The Demands of Justice: Enslaved Women, Capital Crime, and Clemency in Early Virginia (2023), examines enslaved women and girls who acted on their own ideas of right and wrong to resist the brutality and cruelty of their masters as they could not seek legal recourse. Having written the book concurrent with the George Floyd protests in 2020, Tamika was Inspired by the current generation’s protests against anti-Black violence and police brutality and the ongoing struggle for justice from a legal system that continues to fail to provide it for all Americans. It is a topic that follows well on the heels of her first book At the Threshold of Liberty with its focus on the struggles everyday Black women underwent to envision liberty and freedom for themselves.

This is an important conversation in the midst of Women’s History Month, illuminating many previously untold stories. We hope you enjoy this insightful discussion.

Here is a quick peek inside the episode:

On historical erasure and elevating stories that have been relegated to the margins:

“Most of the sources that I look at have been studied, have been cited, but to tell a very different story … when I started to look at the lives particularly of white Americans in DC, I also saw the enslaved people and the servants who were forced to labor in those homes and labor to support the image of someone like a Dolley Madison or [the] Jefferson presidency. And so, those stories were right there. And then there were some stories that were harder to find. Sometimes I would look at police precinct records to think about more of those economies of vice, and sometimes those police precinct records just had basic demographic data and I had to really kind of imagine what it would be like to try to solicit money off of the streets … And so, some pieces required me to imagine and even speculate … It became sort of a treasure hunt in which sometimes I had more full stories and then some stories were incomplete … And those are opportunities to invite the reader in to think about what they think might have happened … Sources are complicated … and oftentimes it has been the reason or the excuse as to why historians earlier in American history, in the field, have not produced histories of Black women, but I think we are part of a renaissance right now [in which] many Black women historians are going back to the archive, tp the same sources that early historians of the 20th century had looked at, and now are beginning to see and find Black women and girls in the archive.”

On situating Black women within the overarching narrative of American liberty:

“One of the questions that historians are always concerned [with] is: Who freed the slaves? And I thought that was a question that was sort of incomplete. A question that I had was: How did Black women envision liberty when legal freedom was not on the horizon, when there was no Emancipation Proclamation? Once you become free, then what? What do you do? Who do you become? And what I found is that Black women and girls made a variety, a range of choices based upon the very narrow pathways that were available to them. And so, some of that might have required going into informal economies, and not just sex and leisure, but also building their own businesses, having their own garden plots, selling their own goods, and, for others who had access, attending school … And for many, many others, it was hard labor … Freedom looked like a lot of different things, but the important thing that I wanted readers to take away was that liberty was not defined by the American government, liberty was defined by these women. The American government did not allow liberty to be available to them, unless it was under certain legal conditions. But, these Black women were envisioning freedom, whether they acted on those visions or not, and they made plans for it and they had an idea of who they wanted to become.”

Watch the full video interview here:

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