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Prof. Rebecca Scott participates in Author's Forum, delivers Russel Lecture

By John Masson

February has been a busy month for Michigan Law Professor Rebecca Scott.

She started it with the release of Freedom Papers: An Atlantic Odyssey in the Age of Emancipation, a work co-authored with Jean Hébrard and already hailed by Henry Louis Gates Jr. in The Boston Globe as "a brilliant book."

She ended it Thursday, February 23, with the Henry Russel Lecture, one of the highest honors the University of Michigan can bestow on a senior faculty member.

Watch a video of the Russel Lecture.

And in between, she and her Freedom Papers co-author participated in an author talk at the Hatcher Graduate Library that drew more than 80 people.

Watch a video of the Author's Forum.

At the Russel lecture, University of Michigan President Mary Sue Coleman praised Scott as "an outstanding teacher and member of LSA and the Law School…who is credited with the legendary seminar 'Getting Documents to Speak.' "

And speak they do, in Scott's capable hands. In Freedom Papers, Scott and Hébrard trace the stories of the descendants of a woman who came to be called Rosalie, who was kidnapped in West Africa and deported to the French colony of Saint-Domingue—modern-day Haiti.

From there to 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.

Learn more about Freedom Papers and read reviews.

For the Russel Lecture, Scott, the Charles Gibson Distinguished University Professor of History and a Professor of Law, told a different story: the story of two women separated by more than 200 years and an ocean, yet united in their shared fight against servitude. Adélaide Métayer lived as a free woman in New Orleans in 1810, and ultimately waged a successful battle against a man who seized her and her children, probably falsely, to satisfy a debt he said was owed to him by her former master.

Iwa-Akofa Siliadin, on the other hand, was brought from Togo to Paris in 1994 by a family friend, purportedly to go to school there. Instead she ended up under the control of a prosperous couple who took away her passport, forced her to work with no pay, and threatened her to keep her from going to police. After a protracted legal battle, Siliadin convinced the European Court of Human Rights that her treatment constituted "servitude"–but not slavery.

Of course, Scott's wintertime whirlwind isn't over yet. In a few days she's heading to New Orleans, one of the epicenters of the history revealed both in Freedom Papers and in the Russel Lecture, where she and Hébrard will speak at a book launch gathering in the Crescent City.

And after that? Well, no one needs to remind a historian that time marches on. So she plans to spend the next day in the New Orleans City Archives, tracking down more information on the legal struggles of Adélaide Métayer, while co-author Hébrard digs out the baptismal records of the Tinchant family for the French edition of Freedom Papers.

Watch Michigan Law's video interview with Prof. Scott.

 

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