I am an assistant professor of history and an assistant professor of law (secondary appointment) at Vanderbilt University. Before joining the faculty at Vanderbilt in 2016, I was an assistant professor of history at West Virginia University, and I have held long-term residential fellowships at the Newberry Library and the American Bar Foundation. In May 2012, I received my Ph.D. in History from the University of Maryland, under the direction of Dr. Ira Berlin.
I am a historian of the nineteenth-century United States with a focus on slavery, race, and the law in the American South. I approach the study of the law and slavery from the bottom up. Rather than focusing on statutes and appellate court decisions as conclusive expressions of law, I examine trial court records, church disciplinary hearings, and other local legal records that emphasize the role ordinary people played in shaping legal processes. Generally, I am interested in changing understandings of what law is and who it is for. The antebellum U.S. South, in particular, offers a fruitful place for thinking broadly about who defines law and rights. Scholars often think about rights as something given or provided through nature or statute, but my research shows that the history of rights is far more discontinuous; for rights are more properly imagined as things claimed through rhetoric—and often, the rhetoric of those without formal power. This interest in the intersection between law and rights and race and rhetoric has led me from examining the world of legal “outsiders,” both black and white; to how property featured in the African American legal imaginary; and from there to the gritty world of lending and borrowing across the color line.
The National Science Foundation (SES #1353231) funded my research on African Americans in the local courts of the Lower Mississippi Valley ($149,605).
In 2019-20, I will be the ACLS Oscar Handlin Fellow in American History.