The Schomburg Center Announces the Winner of the Lapidus Center’s 2020 Harriet Tubman Prize

Dr. Stephanie E. Jones-Rogers, author of They Were Her Property, receives $7,500 prize

The Lapidus Center for the Historical Analysis of Transatlantic Slavery at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture is pleased to announce that Dr. Stephanie E. Jones-Rogers is the winner of the 2020 Harriet Tubman Prize for her book The Were Her Property: White Women as Slave Owners in the American South (Yale University Press, 2019). The Harriet Tubman Prize awards $7,500 to the best nonfiction book published in the United States on the slave trade, slavery, and anti-slavery in the Atlantic World.

A jury of prominent historians including Drs. Ed Baptist, Kevin Dawson, and Yuko Miki selected the winner from three finalists chosen by a national committee of librarians and scholars.

“While many recent studies discuss connections between slavery and emergent American capitalism, They Were Her Property reveals especially clearly the relationship between white wealth and Black reproductive labor,” the jury said. 

Jones-Rogers’ book focuses on the interaction between white women and the enslaved children, women, and men whom they used as property. Far from being reluctant enslavers trapped in a patriarchal world, ‘plantation mistresses’ actively managed and owned enslaved people—and not only as workers in the households and fields of the pre-Civil War South. 

In fact, Jones-Rogers reveals, they owned Black people as capital in the active sense: bringing them into marriages as inheritance; buying, mortgaging, and selling them for maximum property; scheming on their value and revenue; using them as leverage against problematic husbands.  

White women calculated the reproductive labor of enslaved people, both for building up their own proper households and as multivalent sources of profit…As white women struggled to impose their will, enslaved people fought back, argued, struggled, and above all, critiqued those who used them as property. 

Jones-Rogers’ careful, critical readings of those Works Project Administration (WPA) narratives, as well as plantation records, the diaries and other writings of white women, and other sources fill her book with the immediacy of this history. She centers the enslaved people in them to highlight the critiques they levied against the white women who exploited them. She reads these sources, above all, as the most honest appraisals of the ways in which women of the slave owner class built their own prosperity and status out of the exploitation of others. Ultimately, those who survived intervened in history by telling their stories. 

Jones-Rogers communicates their voices and the broader argument of They Were Her Property with admirable clarity. She deftly weaves together narrative and analysis while always centering her sources.”

“As a descendent of enslaved people and the granddaughter of North Carolina sharecroppers, it is a profound honor to receive the 2020 Harriet Tubman Prize,” Dr. Jones-Rogers said. “When I became a historian, I committed myself to honoring them, dignifying their memories, and doing justice to their experiences in and with the stories I tell. I heartily thank the judges and the Lapidus Center for the Historical Analysis of Transatlantic Slavery for recognizing my devotion to this important work.”  

Dr. Michelle D. Commander, associate director and curator of the Lapidus Center, remarked about this year’s prize winner, “A well-researched and thoughtfully rendered book, They Were Her Property makes a significant contribution to our understanding of the complex intersections between gender, race, and class during slavery in the United States. I am thrilled for Dr. Jones-Rogers and delighted that her fine work is receiving the recognition it deserves.” 

Stephanie E. Jones-Rogers is Associate Professor of History at the University of California, Berkeley.

The 2020 Harriet Tubman Prize will be presented to Dr. Stephanie E. Jones-Rogers in early-2021 during a virtual event. Details are forthcoming. 

About the Lapidus Center for the Historical Analysis of Transatlantic Slavery 

The Lapidus Center for the Historical Analysis of Transatlantic Slavery, founded in 2014 with a generous $2.5 million gift from Ruth and Sid Lapidus, generates and disseminates scholarly knowledge and works on the slave trade, slavery, and anti-slavery pertaining to the Atlantic World. The Center supports the work of researchers with long-term and short-term fellowships. Given the centrality of Atlantic slavery to the making of the modern world, Lapidus fellowships ensure that slavery studies are a cornerstone of the Schomburg Center’s broader research community. The Center engages the public with a variety of programs, an annual nonfiction book prize, exhibitions, conferences, and partnerships with local, national, and international institutions. Dr. Commander is the author of Afro-Atlantic Flight: Speculative Returns and the Black Fantastic, Avidly Reads Passages, and the forthcoming edited volume Unsung: Unheralded Narratives of American Slavery & Abolition.  To learn more about the Lapidus Center, please visit lapiduscenter.org.

Founded in 1925 and named a National Historic Landmark in 2017, the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture is one of the world’s leading cultural institutions devoted to the preservation, research, interpretation, and exhibition of materials focused on African American, African Diasporan, and African experiences. As a research division of The New York Public Library, the Schomburg Center features diverse programming and collections totaling over 11 million items that illuminate the richness of global black history, arts, and culture. Learn more at schomburgcenter.org.

About the New York Public Library 

For 125 years, The New York Public Library has been one of the world’s leading free providers of education and information for the people of New York and beyond. With 92 locations—including research and branch libraries—throughout the Bronx, Manhattan, and Staten Island, the Library offers free materials, computer access, classes, exhibitions, programming, and more to everyone from toddlers to scholars, and has seen record numbers of attendance and circulation in recent years. The New York Public Library serves nearly 18 million patrons who come through its doors annually and millions more around the globe who use its resources at nypl.org. To offer this wide array of free programming, The New York Public Library relies on both public and private funding. Learn more about how to support the Library at nypl.org/support.

Photo: The Lapidus Center