Black Women, Self-Making, and Liberty

Capable office staff; Bookkeeping department; National Benefit Association, Washington, D.C., 1917 (Courtesy of the Schomburg Center)

Historian Tamika Nunley introduces At the Threshold of Liberty: Women, Slavery and Shifting Identities in Washington D.C. with the anecdote of an enslaved woman once named Surrey, who escaped from her enslaver’s home and changed her name to Sukey Dean. The story of Sukey’s life working for her enslaver, her escape, and life as a freedwoman serves as a compelling example of Black women’s and girl’s quest for self-definition and self-making in nineteenth century District of Columbia. Nunley’s work is less concerned with questions of Black women’s agency or resistance. Instead, she provides illuminating historiography of the ways Black women and girls navigated the complex racialized and gendered terrain of the nation’s new capital and the strategies that they utilized in pursuit of liberty. Within this historiography, Nunley proves the extent to which Black women and girls in the District ultimately forged the path for liberty and the democratic ideals for which the capital would eventually become known. 

Nunley employs a wide array of source material in order to trace Black women’s strategies of survival and self-making. She includes historical sources that recorded the process of Black women’s navigation of the region, such as runaway advertisements and abolitionist records. She also includes primary source material, mainly the written reflections of free and fugitive African Americans. Notably, she centers the writing of the students of the Myrtilla Miner’s School for Colored Girls, and notes that this is the first time that these writings have been used to center the voices of Black girls in the capital. Nunley also uses a number of secondary sources to enrich her study, including government and legal documents, court documents, as well as digital archival material. She thoroughly explains the intent behind the source material she used, and acknowledges the limitations of “archival scarcity” and the violence that archives produce when it relates to documenting the experiences of African Americans within the context of slavery. 

Nunley’s work offers a refreshing reconceptualization of Black women’s pursuit of liberty informed by the regional specificity of the District of Columbia. She acknowledges that she sees her work in conversation with a myriad of scholars whose work laid the foundation for her study of the multi-faceted racial and gendered dynamics at play in D.C. She cites scholars such as Hartman, Masur, Harrison, and others concerned with the specific dynamics in the D.C. region. She explains that this foundational knowledge of the workings of slavery in Washington allowed her to produce the first study of Black women’s lives in nineteenth-century D.C. The first chapter, “Slavery,” explores the establishment of the D.C. slave markets. Nunley provides a detailed investigation of the expanding real estate market in the new capital and the ways it was informed by the alluring profits of “hiring out” enslaved workers—mainly women and girls—as domestics and caregivers to the political elite. This structure was a  contributing factor to the gendered and racial hierarchies that established the white social order in the District. Influential white women leveraged their ownership or employment of Black enslaved workers for social capital. Nunley explains the new tax policies that emerged with the establishment of the capital, in which non-residents that owned enslaved people in the District were taxed on their human property. This provided a financial incentive for residency in the capital that would eventually contribute to the region’s bolstering population. The second chapter, “Fugitivity,” seeks to recontextualize the basis of Black women’s escapes from their enslavers given the regional specificity of the study. Nunley acknowledges the dominant historical narrative that asserts that enslaved men were more likely to escape than women because many enslaved families adhered to gender hierarchies in which women were left with the responsibilities of caring for kin, such as children and elder family members. However, she explains that these familial responsibilities did not always prevent enslaved women from escaping, and traces the multitude of strategies that Black women used to navigate their escapes in the Upper South region. She also highlights the strategies other than escape that Black women utilized in their quest for freedom and liberty. 

The third chapter,”Courts,” builds on this analysis and investigates Black women’s legal battles for freedom and liberty. While many of the court cases that Nunley highlights involved enslaved Black women fighting for their freedom based on matrilineal claims, she also includes the stories of freedwomen that appeared before the courts to fight for their right to liberty as American citizens. One of the most contentious of these liberties was the right to education, which is outlined in detail in the fourth chapter, “Schools.” The pursuit of education was a pivotal manifestation of Black women and girls’ rights to exercise their liberties as citizens. Although it was not illegal for freedwomen and girls to pursue education, the chapter highlights the violent white backlash when Black girls asserted their rights to education. Nunley explains that this was largely due to white fear surrounding the racial makeup of the capital, as eventually, many formerly enslaved women fled to D.C. as refugees in pursuit of the liberty that the capital promised. Nunley also points out that not all freedwomen and girls had the opportunity to pursue education, as many were faced with the nexus of self-making and survival that did not necessarily allow for the pursuit of formal education.

These survival and self-making strategies are explored in more depth in the fifth chapter entitled “Streets,” which charts the different enterprises that Black women engaged in to earn their livelihoods. Nunley explains that many of them participated in the booming wartime sex and leisure economy that was facilitated by the influx of soldiers and other military personnel with discretionary income. Although sex work was not illegal in D.C., a  large part of the white backlash regarding the sex and leisure economy was connected to concerns about interracial sex. The different extents to which Black women experienced and navigated the wartime local economy was ultimately tied to their “social, legal and geographic position” (159). In chapter six, “Government,” Nunley examines the role of government and federal law in Black women’s process of self-making. She explains the unprecedented nature of the relationship that Black women forged with the federal government in which refugee and freedwomen employed legal loopholes and navigated power dynamics in order to secure liberty for themselves and their kin. Although some women found legal success, Nunley acknowledges that their experiences with the federal government “showed that it would take much more than legislation to release them from the grip of slavery” (13). 

Ultimately, Nunley makes an incredible contribution to the field of the study of African American women in the nineteenth century. She leaves her readers with an irrefutable understanding of the centrality of Black women in the establishment of the capital’s reputation as a site of liberty and justice for all. Nunley’s nuanced engagement with the region’s specific gendered and racialized political landscape challenge our notions of the gendered dynamics of slavery and the ways in which enslaved women worked to navigate them. She explains that she understands her study as a starting point for future engagement with the lives and legacies of Black women and girls in the region. Nunley’s impressively cohesive study exemplifies the duality of Black women’s and girls’ lived experiences in the capital at a pivotal turning point in the political project of nation-making. 

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Ashley Everson

Ashley Everson is a PhD student in Africana Studies at Brown University. Ashley earned her B.A. with honors distinction in Social Thought and Political Economy and her M.A. in Political Science with a graduate certificate in African Diaspora Studies from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Her research interests include Black feminist thought, political theory, labor history, and Black women’s political histories. Her most recent research seeks to investigate the relationship between Black political mobilization in the Tennessee Valley region and decolonial organizing throughout the African Diaspora during the interwar period. She tweets @aevers0n.

Comments on “Black Women, Self-Making, and Liberty

  • Very interesting and informative article. It reveals detailed aspects of our fore Fathers, Parents & Grand Parents, their struggles and the cold hard truth about why Caucasian Americans did not want slavery to end! This makes me appreciate and be more thankful for where we are in this nation as a race of people, and at the same time make me realize that we have come a long way, but we still have miles to travel ahead of us. Thank you Ms Ashley Nicole Everson for this informative article.

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