The University of Massachusetts Amherst

Spotlight Scholar

The Road to Freedom

Esteemed historian pieces together untold stories of slavery in the Americas
  • UMass Amherst historian Barbara Krauthamer sitting in her office

Krauthamer has quickly moved into the national spotlight as one of a few historians researching under-represented areas of slavery and emancipation in the Americas.

Historical accounts of slavery and emancipation in the Americas abound in school textbooks and history classes, but according to UMass Amherst historian Barbara Krauthamer, there are holes in that history—important details of race and gender that she is dedicating her career to uncovering.

Her recent book, Envisioning Emancipation: Black Americans and the End of Slavery, co-authored with photographic historian Deborah Willis of New York University, has been widely praised. The book presents 150 historical photographs that Krauthamer and Willis have amassed through their overlapping research, providing a more visceral as well as intellectual account of the end of slavery. Well-timed with the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation in early 2013, the book landed both Krauthamer and Willis the 45th Annual NAACP Image Award in non-fiction and has been honored by the Black Caucus of the American Library Association. Since the book’s release, it has garnered national attention through major media outlets such as the New York Times and CBS.

Krauthamer has quickly moved into the national spotlight as one of few historians researching the underrepresented areas of slavery and emancipation in the Americas. Her work covers a range of topics typically overlooked. Her more recent book, Black Slaves, Indian Masters: Slavery, Emancipation, and Citizenship in the Native American South, was the first study of slavery in the Choctaw and Chickasaw nations. The book details how conflicts among Choctaw, Chickasaw, and U.S. lawmakers left countless former slaves and their descendants in the two Indian nations without citizenship of any kind.

In order to bring this history to light, Krauthamer pours over slave owners’ records, abolitionists’ records, newspaper accounts, court documents, autobiographies, and other narratives. In all her research, Krauthamer works to present a more inclusive view of the past, as she believes slavery is too often defined by the male experience.

“I think it’s a time period in which African American women, especially enslaved women, have been overlooked as intellectuals and political actors,” says Krauthamer.

Because so much remains unknown about women’s lives in slavery, Krauthamer’s next book will focus on enslaved women and their liberation. It will include stories of enslaved women who ran away, who escaped and had to change their names and identities in order to remain hidden, and of those who sued for their freedom.

“What I hope my work does is to really make clear the roles that African American women played,” says Krauthamer. “Both freed women and enslaved women, and their intellectual engagement with the world around them in the antebellum period. They were certainly acutely aware of the political debates over slavery and women’s rights. Even for women who were enslaved, they had a clear understanding of what was at stake.”

Krauthamer believes that telling the untold stories of enslaved women enables a broader look at what life was like in slavery, including people’s religious practices, their family life, and their ideas of beauty and fashion.

“It gives us a much richer understanding of the African American experience in slavery. I also think it gives us a much richer understanding of points of connection within the African American diaspora,” says Krauthamer.

What’s next for Krauthamer? Through the UMass Digital Humanities Initiative, Krauthamer is working to create a digital map of the Mahaiwe Cemetery in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, where W.E.B. Dubois’ family was buried. She plans to connect that map with other maps of African American gravesites in Berkshire County, which will serve her larger goal of aggregating sources of African American history scattered across Western Massachusetts. Here on campus, she will soon take over as the History Department’s graduate program director, where she looks forward to ensuring a rich experience for students pursuing advanced degrees in History.

Amanda Drane '12