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Northwestern University
Dylan Penningroth
Dylan Penningroth

Weinberg Professor Wins MacArthur "Genius" Grant

As a graduate student researching the history of slavery, Dylan Penningroth had to confront one seemingly paradoxical question: How was it that slaves were able to own property when they themselves were property?

Penningroth launched a search through myriad historical records that yielded groundbreaking discoveries about property ownership among slaves across the South, as well as the practices, understandings, and kin ties that made such ownership possible. In recognition of his achievement, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation in October named the Weinberg associate professor of history a 2012 MacArthur Fellow. The award, commonly referred to as the “genius” grant, comes with $100,000 each year for five years, no strings attached.

“It was an incredible surprise to get the call from the MacArthur Foundation,” Penningroth said, adding that it took him “days and days” to come to terms with the announcement. “This fellowship is enormously important for me,” he said. “It’s going to make it possible for me to take a story that might otherwise be limited in time and space and make it a bigger story.” Penningroth’s first book, "The Claims of Kinfolk: African American Property and Community in the Nineteenth-Century South" (University of North Carolina Press, 2003), opens with a former slave’s account of how Union troops looted property—including livestock, provisions and wagons owned by slaves—that they found on Southern plantations near the end of the Civil War. He describes how thousands of freedpeople claimed and were often awarded compensation for stolen property from the federal Southern Claims Commission after the war.

Long-obscured documents such as court and government records shed light on the informal system of slave property ownership that flourished throughout the 1800s and was recognized by both blacks and whites. Penningroth also compared his findings about property ownership among African American slaves with that of slaves in Ghana, highlighting different ideas of kinship and property that existed in Africa during the same period.

“By compiling evidence from vast and widely scattered archives, Penningroth is painting a more vivid picture of relationships between parents and children, husbands and wives, and illuminating the ways communities of slaves and their descendants recognized what belonged to whom,” the MacArthur Foundation observed.

Penningroth is currently researching how freed slaves’ children and grandchildren managed to enter the U.S. legal system by buying property and thus forcing courts to acknowledge their basic rights. “I’m trying to connect that story to a story that I think we know well, or think we know well, which is the story of civil rights,” he said.

With funding from the National Science Foundation, Penningroth is researching sermons, slave narratives, and most important, court records such as docket books and case files from between 1865 and 1950.

“The thing that studying law in this period showed me is that African Americans were in it,” Penningroth noted. “They were participating in it. They were not objects of law. They did things. They went to court. They sued.”

In many areas of law, American courts worked to keep African Americans down—to frustrate any legal claim that might threaten white supremacy. But “as long as those claims did not threaten white supremacy, many whites were perfectly happy to let them make those claims.”

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