011: Dylan Penningroth, 34


Edited by Bonnie K. Goodman

11: Dylan Penningroth, 1-15-06

Basic Facts

Teaching Position: Associate Professor of History, Northwestern University
Area of Research: African American history, with special interests in the history of slavery and emancipation, property and family, and African Studies.
Education: Ph.D., Johns Hopkins University, 2000
Major Publications: The Claims of Kinfolk: African American Property and Community in the Nineteenth-Century South, University of North Carolina Press, 2003 (The John Hope Franklin Series in African American History and Culture).
Book Chapter; “My People, My People: The Dynamics of Community in Southern Slavery,” Dylan Penningroth JPG 166-76, in New Studies in the History of American Slavery, ed. Edward E. Baptist and Stephanie M.H. Camp, (University of Georgia Press, 2006).
Awards: Penningroth’s The Claims of Kinfolk: African American Property and Community in the Nineteenth-Century South won the 2004 Avery O. Craven Award from the Organization of American Historians.
Penningroth’s dissertation “Claiming Kin and Property: Black Life in the Nineteenth-Century South” won the Allan Nevins Prize of the Society of American Historians in 2000.
Other awards include; Distinguished Lecturer, Organization of American Historians (2005-08); Lane Professor in the Humanities, Northwestern (2006); Pre-doctoral Fellowship, Carter G. Woodson Institute for African and African American Studies, University of Virginia (1998-99); Huggins-Quarles Award, Organization of American Historians (1998); and W. M. Keck Foundation and Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Fellowship, Huntington Library Summer (1998).
Additional Info: Formerly Assistant Professor of History, University of Virginia, (1999-2002).
Consultant for Teaching American History institute, Evanston, IL. (Summer 2005); Referee for Journal of Southern History, Oxford Univ. Press, Cambridge Univ. Press.

Personal Anecdote

My specialty is the history of black life during and after slavery. During graduate school I often talked with my relatives about my research, and one day my Uncle Craig handed me a cassette. It turned out that back in 1976, he had taken a tape recorder with him to go see our great-uncle, Thomas Holcomb, who had migrated up to New Jersey from Farmville, Virginia in 1927 or so (and who used to help the 5-year-old me chase rabbits). And when I listened to the tape, I heard Uncle Tom talking about “slavery time people”: it dawned on me that his father, and many of the people he grew up with, were freedpeople.And the stories he told were amazing-not because they did anything exceptional but because they did it at all, and they were my family. He talked about moving up North (“we couldn’t make it farming”) yet holding onto the farm anyway. He talked about how his father, who was named Jackson Hall, used to run away from his master and hide out in the Great Dismal Swamp.

One story in particular made a big impression on me. At that time, I was researching the legally strange phenomenon of slaves who owned property, and was wondering whether I should try looking outside the Lowcountry, where scholars had shown it was common. On the tape, Uncle Craig asked if he remembered any stories about the Civil War. He did. Late in the war, Jackson Hall ran into a gang of Confederate soldiers who wanted him to take them across the river in his boat. They were running from the Union army in Virginia, probably desperate and definitely well-armed. So what happened then? Uncle Craig asked. Well, Uncle Tom said, they paid him. It was just the inspiration I needed.


By Dylan Penningroth

  • “September 30, 1799 was Denmark Vesey’s lucky day. Just as thousands of middling and poor people did sometimes, he bought a ticket for one of Charleston’s lotteries; like everyone else, he probably put it in his pocket and barely gave it a second thought. But thirty-nine days and several drawings later, number 1884 came up and lottery commissioners promptly put $1,500 into Denmark Vesey’s hands. His master and mistress drove a hard bargain, but when he paid them their price, they signed his freedom papers without any comment. Denmark Vesey led an extraordinary life-after all, he not only won the lottery, he also was accused of plotting the biggest slave insurrection in American history. But there is something in the mundane details of his otherwise unusual life that raises a fascinating question about American slavery, and about southern society as a whole: why did the lottery pay $1500 to a slave?” — Dylan Penningroth in “Claims of Kinfolk”
  • Between 1800 and 1880, an extra-legal economy took shape in the South, was challenged, and eventually molded anew. That system of property ownership and trade scarcely registered on the statute-books but it went on in yards, cities, and back roads across the South; it was part of the fabric of southern society. While white people tolerated and often participated in it, black families and communities provided the muscle, the watchful eyes, and the social pressures that made the system work. In turn, property ownership and the special efforts it demanded from slaves put an unmistakable dynamism into their social ties, stretching and bending the lines of blood and marriage. Throughout the 1800s, black people were constantly negotiating with one another over family and community-who belonged, and what it meant to belong. — Dylan Penningroth in “Claims of Kinfolk”

About Dylan Penningroth

  • “What did it mean, Penningroth asks, for people who were property to have property? The answers to this deceptively simple question utterly transform our understanding of the meaning of property in the South, the history of family and community in slavery, and the centrality of African history to American history.” — Walter Johnson, New York University
  • “A pioneering study. . . . Skillfully researched and cogently presented, Penningroth’s book broadens our understanding of property as a key element in the lives of African American slaves and freed-persons.” — Law & History Review
  • “Specialists in African American studies will greatly appreciate this provocative study of property holding among enslaved African Americans.” — Journal of African American History
  • “This fine work of scholarship challenges and complicates notions about slavery, reminding us of the diversity and resilience of the people subject to its debilitating effects.” — Maryland Historical Magazine
  • “Penningroth is awesome and he knows his history. If you want to look at history from a different perspective, take his African American History class.” — Anonymous Student

Posted on Saturday, January 14, 2006 at 6:47 PM

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