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 Prof. Rebecca Scott

MLaw prof.'s book Freedom Papers earns two prestigious awards

By John Masson
Nov. 2, 2012

Michigan Law professor Rebecca Scott knew she'd found a great story when she discovered documents that helped her trace a Civil War–era equal-rights activist back across the Atlantic, through freedom and slavery, all the way to his grandmother's departure from West Africa in the 18th century.

She found out this week, with the announcement of two prestigious book prizes, that the American Historical Association agrees. Freedom Papers: An Atlantic Odyssey in the Age of Emancipation, co-authored by Scott and Jean Hébrard, was recognized with both the Albert J. Beveridge Award and the James A. Rawley Prize in Atlantic History.

"In each generation the members of this family put pen to paper, engaging with law as they built up an archive of movement and memory," Scott said. "We never expected, however, that their story would arc from a slave ship leaving Senegambia for the Caribbean around 1785, through Civil War and Reconstruction in Louisiana, to the Belgian resistance to Nazi occupation in 1944."

The Beveridge Award is given annually to authors of a distinguished book on the history of the United States, Canada, or Latin America after 1492. Previous winners have included Ira Berlin, Edmund Morgan, and David Brion Davis. The Rawley Prize recognizes works that explore the integration of the Atlantic world before the 20th century; previous winners have included Laurent Dubois and James H. Sweet.

Hébrard, who teaches at l'École des Hautes Études in Paris, is a visiting professor in the history department at U-M. Scott is the Charles Gibson Distinguished University Professor of History and Professor of Law.

Freedom Papers tells the story of Rosalie of the Poulard Nation and her descendants, and begins with her kidnapping and enslavement around 1785 in West Africa.

From there to Saint-Domingue, Cuba, and New Orleans, then on to France and Belgium—from freedom to bondage and back to freedom again—the stories in Freedom Papers represent more than just a tenacious trip through archives on three continents. They also tell the very human story of one family's involvement in several major anti-racist fights of the 19th century: the Haitian Revolution, the French Revolution of 1848, the American Civil War and Reconstruction, and even the Cuban War for Independence.

Throughout the struggle, Rosalie and her descendants sometimes wavered but often stepped forward to assert their rights—and to document their actions along the way. They were forced to rely on meticulous record-keeping to retain their tenuous freedom, but much later that same documentation helped Scott and Hébrard breathe real life into a significant story about the struggles for liberty that consumed much of the Atlantic world.

The announcements were made on the website of the American Historical Association. Prizes will be awarded at the organization's annual January meeting, to be held, fittingly, in New Orleans.

Learn more about the book and the research process in this video interview with Prof. Scott.

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