July 25, 2022

The Townsend Family Legacy


When Alabama plantation owner Samuel Townsend died in 1856, he willed his vast fortune to his children and his nieces. What seems like an ordinary bequest was anything but, since Townsend’s children and nieces were his enslaved property. Townsend, who knew the will would be challenged in court, left nothing to chance, hiring the best lawyer he could find to ensure that his legatees received both their freedom and the resources they would need to survive in a country that was often hostile to free African Americans.

To learn more about the Townsend Family, I’m joined in this episode by ​public historian Dr. R. Isabela Morales, the Editor and Project Manager of The Princeton & Slavery Project, and author of Happy Dreams of Liberty: An American Family in Slavery and Freedom.

Our theme song is Frogs Legs Rag, composed by James Scott and performed by Kevin MacLeod, licensed under Creative Commons. The episode image is “Fugitive African Americans fording the Rappahannock,” photographed by Timothy H. O’Sullivan in August 1862. The image is in the public domain and available via the Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division

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Transcript

Kelly Therese Pollock  0:00  
This is Unsung History, the podcast where we discuss people and events in American history that haven't always received a lot of attention. I'm your host, Kelly Therese Pollock. I'll start each episode with a brief introduction to the topic, and then talk to someone who knows a lot more than I do. Be sure to subscribe to Unsung History on your favorite podcasting app so you never miss an episode. And please tell your friends, family, neighbors, colleagues, maybe even strangers to listen too. On today's episode, we're discussing the family of Alabama plantation owner Samuel Townsend. When he died in 1856, Townsend willed his vast fortune to his children and his nieces. What seems like an ordinary bequest was anything but, since Townsend's children and his nieces were his enslaved property, and the state of Alabama in 1856 was not excited about having wealthy Black people living there. Samuel Townsend was born in London Berg County, Virginia in 1804. After future President Andrew Jackson defeated the Red Sticks Warriors, a band of Creek Indians who had been resisting giving up their land, Alabama was open to white settlers. Townsend followed his older brothers to Hazel Green, Madison County, Alabama, just north of Huntsville, where the government was selling stolen land cheaply. The Townsends became cotton planters and slave traders and quickly grew wealthy. Samuel's older brother Edmund, became extremely wealthy. When he died in 1853, he left his entire fortune of $500,000, equivalent to about $16 million today, to his children, the majority to his daughters, Elizabeth and Virginia, and the smaller share to his sons Armstead and Woodson. The girls' mother, Lizzy Perryman was mixed race and had possibly been born free and illegally sold into slavery. But whatever her background, Edmund Townsend had purchased her, presumably to serve as his concubine, which she quickly became to the man 32 years her senior. Around 1850, two men from Virginia came to Edmund's house, alleging that Lizzy had been born free. In response, Edmund promised to emancipate Lizzy and his daughters and leave his fortune to them. Soon after, he sold Lizzy, but he did attempt to keep his promise to his daughters. However, Edmund's white family had no intention of allowing his enslaved daughters to inherit. The will was quickly contested and voided in court. Edmund's four children, instead of inheriting a fortune, remained enslaved. And the fortune was divided up instead among Edmund's siblings, including his younger brother Samuel. Like Edmund, Samuel was a wealthy planter and slave owner, and he became much wealthier upon inheriting part of his brother's estate. Like Edmund, Samuel never married and instead took his slaves as concubines. During his life, he fathered five sons and four daughters with five different slave women. Also like Edmund, Samuel wanted to leave his fortune to his children, believing them to be better than other African Americans, because they had his blood. He knew firsthand how difficult that would be to accomplish, having worked to break Edmund's will. So Samuel left nothing to chance. He hired a lawyer, the successful and well regarded Septimus Douglass Cabaniss, to figure out how to make it happen.

According to Cabaniss, Townsend had three goals: 1.) to emancipate his nine children, Elvira, who was likely his concubine at the time of his death, and Edmund's two girls, 2.) to leave most of his fortune to those 12 people, and 3.) to ensure that the 12 could succeed, which included making sure that they would have the education and resources they needed. After much legal research, and multiple drafts of the will, Cabaniss settled on a plan that he felt would stand up to legal challenges, emancipating 45 of those enslaved by Townsend, with a much larger share of the fortune going to the 12 "legatees of the first class," as the will refer to them, than to the rest. Townsend died on November 19, 1856, and as expected, his white relatives immediately challenged the will, but Cabaniss' legal work withstood the challenges. And after a lengthy court battle, the 45 people were freed. However, they could not stay in Alabama, where state law prohibited free African Americans from settling. As executor of the will, it was up to Cabaniss to determine where they should settle, and to set things in motion to allow that to happen. Wesley, the oldest of Townsend's sons, was the first to be manumitted in 1858, and he traveled to Cincinnati, Ohio, which Cabaniss had determined would be a good location. While the laws in Ohio were more welcoming to free African Americans than those of Alabama, not every town welcomed them, and Wesley found mixed reactions. When the next group of legatees of the first class were emancipated, they also went to southern Ohio, settling in Xenia, Ohio, where the younger Townsends attended Wilberforce University, which had opened in 1856, and was founded specifically to educate African American students. The next large group of free Townsends settled in Leavenworth, Kansas, a city with a large and organized free Black population. Charles Osborne Townsend, who served in the Union Army during the Civil War, headed out to Colorado territory, where he was one of just around 500 African Americans. In Colorado, he opened a barber shop and tried to find success in silver mining. Thomas Townsend even made it back to Alabama, purchasing part of the plantation where he and his family had been enslaved, and starting a political career in Alabama. Although Samuel Townsend's children didn't always have the opportunities that he may have wished for them, his bequest to them did help them navigate the obstacles of a country that was often hostile to African Americans. To help us learn more about the Townsend family, I'm speaking now with public historian, Dr. Isabela Morales, author of "Happy Dreams of Liberty: an American Family in Slavery and Freedom." Hi, Isabella, thanks so much for joining me today.

Dr. Isabela Morales  8:47  
Thank you for having me.

Kelly Therese Pollock  8:49  
Yeah, I'm really excited to learn about this story and to talk to you about it. So I wonder if we could just start with how you came to learn about the Townsend family and this interesting will and you know, what, what sort of got you into this story? 

Dr. Isabela Morales  9:05  
Sure. So,the book itself came out of my dissertation, when I was getting my PhD at Princeton University. But I actually first encountered the Townsend family when I was an undergraduate at the University of Alabama. Roll Tide. I was taking a seminar in the history department on Slavery in the Americas. And so in addition to learning through lectures and class discussions about the history of slavery in the United States, and in the Caribbean, part of the course was doing original archival research using materials from the university Special Collections Library. And I, you know, like most of my classmates in that course, had never set foot in a special collections library before you know, never handled 150 year old documents. I thought I was ahead of the curve because I could use a microfilm reader, which was a good start, but this was my first time doing actual, you know, original archival research. And it was really serendipity that led me to the Townsend family specifically. I was really just scrolling through an online finding aid, trying to see if anything would jump out to me for, you know, my research paper topic. And I came across this, you know, two or three sentence description of the papers related to the Townsend family, that these were enslaved people who were the children of their enslaver, and were freed by his will and inherited a piece of his immense fortune. And that, you know, because I didn't know much about slavery, all of this seemed incredibly striking and shocking to me. And I figured, "Oh, I can write a paper on this," little knowing that it would be the next 10 years of my life. But I, you know, I really owe it to my professor at UA and this undergraduate course for, for not only introducing me to archival research, but helping me find this really compelling human story of the Townsend family.

Kelly Therese Pollock  11:05  
Yeah. So let's talk some then about these papers, about the sources. So there's this like trove of documents that you're able to look at. But as you talk about in the book, there are some limitations on what what we can and can't know from the written sources. So can you talk first, just sort of what what those papers are, why there are so many of them, what what that source material looks like?

Dr. Isabela Morales  11:33  
Yeah, that's exactly right. The archival collection that I used, very heavily in this book is called "The SD Cabaniss Papers." It's held at the University of Alabama, and it's named for Septimus Cabaniss, a Huntsville lawyer in the 19th century. And Cabaniss served as the executor of Samuel Townsend's estate after his death in 1856. So Cabaniss was the man in charge of making sure that the Townsend children were emancipated and received the inheritance that they were due. And fortunately for me, he was a very meticulous lawyer, he saved all of his records, nearly 15,000 individual items total, which include two boxes of letters written by members of the Townsend family themselves, written by formerly enslaved people. So in writing the story, I had access to roughly 170 letters, first person narratives written by my historical actors in their own words, and that's a really incredible resource. Because how often do you get to hear the voices of formerly enslaved people? But you're right, that interpreting these letters is not a straightforward process. And there's a lot that even those remarkable sources can't tell us. You know, virtually all of the letters in this collection were written to the lawyer,  to Cabaniss, a white southerner, himself a slave owner before the Civil War, a confederate officer during the war. And so the Townsends know that this man is not necessarily going to be sympathetic to all of their requests and to all of their life experiences. And so they have to frame their requests often for you know, questions about where is my inheritance? You know, can I get financial assistance for my education, for purchasing a house, for you know, starting a business? All of these requests have to be couched in a way that will appeal to this white southerner with, you know, a slave owner's mentality. And so the letters are, you know, kind of stiff, sometimes they're terse, they don't say everything clearly that's going on in the Townsends' lives. And it's really interesting to compare these letters to the few that I have that were written between members of the family. You know, in the 19th century, everybody's writing letters all the time. And the Townsends, you know, some of them lived hundreds of miles apart. And that's the only way they can stay in contact. And I know that they're writing to each other frequently, but I only have about a dozen of those letters written between the Townsends and these were sent from Charles Osborne Townsend, one of Samuel's sons living in Colorado, to his half brother, Thomas Townsend, living in Alabama after the Civil War. And those letters are much more personal, more open in expressing, you know, personal experiences, political opinions, and they even reminisce about what their lives were like back in Alabama when they were children and they were enslaved. And nobody is writing about their lives and slavery when they're sending letters to the lawyer, to Cabaniss. And so by comparing, you know, what's available in the letters from Charles Osborne to Thomas and then looking at what they say to Cabaniss, it's very clear that the majority of the letters are leaving out so much of the story. And so, you know, I, of course, as a historian, wish I had more of the documentation of the conversations between members of the family. But again, it's still a remarkable cache of documents. 

Kelly Therese Pollock  15:17  
Yeah. And so then let's talk a little bit about education and how it was that they were able to write that. So these formerly enslaved, and I think there's 45 of them in the end, who are manumitted, so you know, how is it that they have the kind of education? When did they get that kind of education, that they're able to write to the lawyers to each other? You know, what, what does that look like for them?

Dr. Isabela Morales  15:43  
Right, so Samuel Townsend, in his will, he emancipates 45 enslaved people that he owns in Alabama, and nine of them are his own children, his sons and daughters, and three of them are the children of his brother, Edmund, who were also enslaved children. And the rest are the children's mothers, as well as their mothers' children by enslaved men. And so the individuals who really receive a formal education, it's a small number of that 45. It's Samuel's younger children and Edmund's, two daughters, and they're sent out of Alabama to southern Ohio to Wilberforce University, which was the, one of the only, you know, colleges, institutions of higher education at the time that accepted Black students. And what's interesting about Wilberforce is that, according to some accounts, the majority of students were children like the Townsends. They were the formerly enslaved sons and daughters of white southerners who had been sent north to receive their education, and so at Wilberforce, you know, Samuel and Edmund's children are able to receive an education that is just as good, if not superior to what most white children are getting in the north or in the south. The rest of the family members, it's kind of hit or miss whether they're able to get that education. You know, Samuel had an older daughter, Caroline, who, when she was emancipated, she was a mother. She had a child, she was in her 20s. And so she wasn't sent to Wilberforce. And as late as 1870, you know, according to the federal census, she could neither read or write. So she didn't receive those opportunities, although she did receive, you know, a piece of her inheritance like her siblings did. So the majority of the letters come from the children who were sent to Wilberforce with a few exceptions. Samuel's eldest son, Wesley, he was emancipated in 1858, two years before the rest of the family. And due to ongoing lawsuits, he was in Ohio waiting for his family, wondering if they would ever come and join him in freedom. And while he was in Ohio, for those two years, he attended a local school, which was partly education, and then financing that education by kind of working on a farm making bricks, kind of doing it was a manual labor academy. And so he really, you know, taught himself how to read or write. And we have the first letter that he ever wrote to Cabaniss, where he's saying, "Tell me if you can read this. I stayed up all night, you know, with the, with the lantern with the candle writing this," because he was highly motivated. And that's like, the majority of freed people after the Civil War, were highly motivated to receive an education which had been denied them in the south where increasingly in the 19th century, there were laws preventing teaching enslaved people how to read or write to prevent them getting an education that could help them achieve social mobility or help them escape slavery.

Kelly Therese Pollock  18:49  
Yeah. So we have, I think, a few different things going on in this story that highlights sort of the different ways that people are able to sort of move forward after slavery and the the sort of different privileges that they might have, the different positions that they have. So you mentioned some of them are Samuel's children and Edmund's children. So they have in addition to maybe slightly better treatment while they were still enslaved, they also have skin color that is lighter. And they are the ones who inherit more than than the others. So there's their sort of skin color, there's education, and whether they have access to it or not, there's the money, the sort of ability to have generational wealth. And then there's also geography which really plays a huge role in this story and what's happened. So I guess maybe, could you sort of just talk through that, tease out those those different things and how it affects what they're able to do, and frankly, the sort of way they think about themselves in the world?

Dr. Isabela Morales  19:59  
Yeah, absolutely. So you are correct in all of that, that there are lot of different factors that interact with each other in determining who among the Townsend family is able to find more success in pursuing the American Dream, pursuing social and economic mobility and advancement. And part of that is money. Money is a big deal. The inheritance opens doors to receiving a formal education, to purchasing property rather than working as hired labor, or to owning their own homes. But there's also mixed race ancestry, because at the time in the 19th century, there is a very widespread color prejudice among white Americans where slave owners and free people, free white people think that an enslaved person or free African American who has lighter skin, who has some Anglo American or European ancestry is somehow more intelligent, or more deserving of freedom or respect than other African Americans who have darker skin. And you know, we would call that colorism today. And so that's very widespread. And that meant that members of the Townsend family who were mixed race, who were Samuel and Edmund's children who had mixed race ancestry may have benefited informally, informally by the prejudices of the people that they interacted with, with in the different communities where they lived after their emancipation. Ohio is an interesting case, because at the time in Ohio, that privilege that mixed race people had was enshrined in law. And that was not very common in the United States. But in Ohio, according to Court precedent, a mixed race person with more than 50%, white ancestry was legally white and was entitled to vote. So you know, when Wesley Townsend, Samuel's son moved to Ohio in 1858, he may have been legally considered a white man and you know, able to exercise rights of citizenship that were denied to African Americans elsewhere in the country. So that's one case where geography plays a very specific role. Another case is Charles Osborne, who moved to Georgetown, Colorado with some residents, a silver mining town during the silver boom of the 1860s and 70s. And Georgetown was a place where he and his family members were essentially accepted as equals with white residents. And that's partly because African Americans were not considered as "other" as other ethnic groups in the region. There were Chinese migrant laborers who were entering Colorado, you know, from California, where they had arrived during the gold rush. There were the Indigenous people who had inhabited that region for 1000s of years, the Ute peoples in in the Georgetown area. And to white Colorado residents, Native Americans and Chinese migrants who, you know, didn't seem to assimilate as well into their culture, were considered far more threatening than African Americans who were farmers and miners and Christians and shared the same culture. And so, you know, in Colorado, Charles Osborne is building a business with a white partner, white business partner. He is getting written up in the newspaper as a as a local celebrity for his barbershop and for his Civil War experience. He was a veteran of the Union army. And he is participating in local politics in a way that his brothers and sisters elsewhere in the country, in Kansas, and in Alabama aren't able to do. So geography there, and the specific demographics of the far west really played a role in what Charles Osborne was able to achieve during his lifetime. So I think that, you know, this story, this family story is, it's very complicated. There are all these different variables and factors going into how the Townsends experienced their freedom throughout the 19th century. But that's, you know, a benefit to me of telling family stories. You know, how the Townsends were perceived, accepted, or excluded in different communities really depended on and reflected the values of that specific time and place. And those kinds of insights really only come from that fine grained, detailed study of individual lives and families. It just goes to show the complexity and diversity of people's experiences that we don't often think about.

Kelly Therese Pollock  24:37  
Yeah, it's fascinating. And so I want to back up for just a minute and ask if we have any idea why Samuel Townsend, and before him, his brother Edmund, decided to do this thing that was so unusual for the time, to essentially try to treat their enslaved children as their heirs, and you know and do this and of course, in Samuel's case, it's super complicated because first he fights the will of Edmund, who was trying to do the same thing. And but then he does this and, you know, hires a good lawyer and, you know, really tries to make it ironclad. You know, I think there's so much about slavery, of course, it's horrifying, and it's hard to understand. But this idea that so many slave owners, so many men, not only had sexual relationships and forced sexual relationships with slave women, that that part, you know, I think we can sort of grasp but that then the kids that they had out of these sexual relationships are, you know, are enslaved, and they don't typically, sort of accept them as their own children. So what what made Samuel different? You know, what do we know anything about why, why he sort of went this path and went even further and not just wanted to emancipate his own children, but their mothers and the other children that their mothers had had, like, this is the it just seems very, very interesting.

Dr. Isabela Morales  26:15  
It is definitely an interesting case. And I can't give you a definitive answer, because I'm not in Samuel's head. And thank God, I'm not in Samuel's head. But, you know, I do have some ideas about what might have motivated Samuel and his brother Edmund. You know, just to go back to the very beginning, Edmund Townsend, the eldest brother of the Townsend family who moved to Alabama, he had four enslaved children. And when he died in 1853, he left a will freeing them and leaving them his half a million dollar estate, which was a big deal. And it was not a very legally sound document, his will. And so it was broken in court and his children were not freed and they did not receive their inheritance. And you are correct that Samuel was one of the leaders in trying to overturn Edmund's will. And I think that's partly because there was a lot of money at stake. You know, before he inherited a large piece of Edmund's fortune, Samuel was worth maybe $50-60,000. After he inherits from Edmund's will, he's worth $200,000. He is at the top of the heap in Madison County. He is living the aristocratic slave owning planter lifestyle. And so that's, that's always a motivation financially. But Samuel also wanted to do the same thing for his children that Edmund wanted. He wanted to free them. And you know, if Edmund's will was broken, and Samuel inherited a large piece of it, that means that Samuel can leave more money to his children. And so that may have been a motivation as well. You know as to why Samuel and Edmund chose to try to legitimize their children, they were obviously not motivated by anti- slavery sentiment. They were some of the largest slave owners in their community in northern Alabama at the time, and they built their fortunes on the backs of enslaved people. They were violent men, as we know from cases. They were men with tempers, who, who beat and abused enslaved men and women who, who sold them like chattel. But they saw their children as kind of a class apart from other enslaved people. You know, in his will, Samuel uses the word slave to refer to some of the people that he owns, his human property, but he never uses that word in reference to his children. His children are servants or they're his favorites, "the favorite objects of my bounty." And you know, that's a semantic distinction. But I think it goes to show how he was thinking about his children. They were superior to other enslaved people by merit of the blood that he had bequeathed to them, a white man's blood, you know, Townsend blood. And he shared a lot of the racial prejudices of most white Americans at the time that mixed race ancestry did somehow imbue an African American person with more intelligence or more trustworthiness or more value as a person. And so that may have been a motivation for why he chose to free his children and try to name them his heirs because he saw them as something different. And also what distinguishes Samuel and Edmund from a lot of men who had enslaved children because there were a lot of slave owners who had enslaved children, was the fact that neither brother ever married, so they have no wives or legally legitimate children to carry on their legacy or to question even in a small way, what they chose to do in their private lives. You know, everybody in the community knew that Samuel  and Edmund had enslaved children. They didn't have to hide it in order to protect the feelings of their wife or their legitimate sons and daughters. They talked about them openly. And so they really bucked social conventions in a lot of ways. And I think they just probably assumed that if nobody questioned their choices when they were alive, why would they dare to do it when they died? So you know, they can really do whatever they want with their property. That was the dogma, that was American economic dogma, that you have absolute property rights, and nobody held to that more closely and tightly than southerners. You know, the trouble came when you tried to turn property into property owners as they were doing by trying to leave enslaved people this immense inheritance. And Samuel succeeded where Edmund didn't because he was able to learn from Edmund's mistakes. He hired Cabaniss, who was, you know, an excellent lawyer for, you know, whatever flaws he had, being a bad lawyer was not one of them. So he was able to write a will that closed up all the loopholes, and that, you know, guaranteed that his children would be emancipated. And we see how that worked, because there are multiple drafts of Samuel's will in the archive. You know, there's the first one he wrote in 1853, right after his brother died, which is legally kind of a mess. He brings in Cabaniss, and you can immediately see in the next draft, that that Cabaniss has started to put his stamp on the document, you know, there's no more talk about favorites. There are legacies of the first and second class, there's residual trust funds. There's all sorts of legalese that obviously didn't come from Samuel Townsend's brain. And the you know, the final draft closes more loopholes and, you know, just becomes even more airtight for the inevitable lawsuits that are going to come after Samuel's death. And as to the question of why did Samuel free 45 enslaved people instead of just his children; part of that we can find the answer to by looking at the initial drafts of the will. The first draft of the will, Samuel wants his kids to inherit his property, be freed, and live on his plantation in Alabama, where they will own their mothers and their half siblings. And you know, Cabaniss comes in and says, "I'm sorry, man, that's just not legal," because the state of Alabama does not want a growing free Black population. So if you're emancipated in Alabama, which is really hard to do, just to begin with, but if you somehow are, you have to leave the state. So they can't live in Alabama and be slave owners. So the next draft, you know, Samuel proposes, "Okay, how about we free all of these family members, and send them to Ohio and or Kansas or wherever in the north, and all of those family members can be the servants of my children for a wage?" And the idea is to make their lives as close to the life of a slave owner as possible, even in a free state. And obviously, you can't, you can't mandate that. So ultimately, what happens is, all of these individuals, 45 enslaved people are freed. The children receive equal shares of a trust fund, that's about $200,000. So you know, around $16,000, is promised to each of them, and then those other enslaved people, their mothers and their half siblings, the other children of their mothers are to receive $200 each. And so that's the final form of the will that is declared valid by the Madison County probate court. Eventually, eventually, yeah, I mean, Samuel dies in 1856. There are four years of litigation lawsuits after lawsuits from white relatives, nieces and nephews who are obviously unhappy with the situation because that's, that's a huge amount of money. And that would change their lives. You know, these relatives are not as wealthy and successful as Samuel or Edmund had been. A number of them are living in Virginia. They're subsistence farmers, essentially, maybe they can send a little bit to market. They're not slave owners, or they're only small slave owners. And so, you know, they're probably thinking, "If we could get a piece of this fortune, we could become more like Samuel and Edmund in our lifestyle. And why do enslaved people deserve it more than us hard working white families?" And so there's, there's a lot of jealousy, there's outrage, and that leads to this litigation that lasts for four years. So the most of the Townsends, except for Wesley, the eldest son are not freed until 1860, you know, four years after their father dies and two years before the outbreak of the Civil War.

Kelly Therese Pollock  34:56  
Yeah, and it's such an interesting twist that they end up not inheriting as much as they theoretically could have, in part because other people are emancipated by the Civil War.

Dr. Isabela Morales  35:11  
That's right. That's right. So, you know, the idea of creating the trust fund is once these children are freed, once the 45 people are freed and sent out of Alabama, Cabaniss, the lawyer is going to sell all of Samuel's property, you know, to get a pool of cash that can be used as the trust fund for the legatees. And so he's selling land. And he's also selling enslaved people who did not have the dubious distinction of being related to Samuel or Edmund Townsend. And what Cabaniss writes in one letter is, you know, quote, unquote, the land sold low, but the negros sold high. So most of the money from Samuel's estate that his children are supposed to inherit is from the sale of other human beings who they lived with for all of their lives in Alabama. And because Cabaniss accepted a lot of payments in credit, after the Civil War, when all enslaved people have been emancipated across the United States, and across the south, all of these people who owe money to Samuel Townsend's estate, they just don't have it. And also, you know, they make a legal argument that, "Well, we can't be held responsible for debts for slave sales, because the government took our slaves." So you know, there's litigation over that aspect as well. And so, the estate is heavily devalued by the Civil War, because most of the money had come from the sale of enslaved people, and now enslaved people cannot be sold because slavery has been abolished. And that is, you know, a tragedy and an irony that even you know, this life changing inheritance that's going to benefit formerly enslaved people, comes from the exploitation of enslaved people and from their sale and the breaking up of their families. So it's a problematic inheritance for the Townsends to begin with.

Kelly Therese Pollock  37:04  
I wanted to ask too, you work in public history, and in a project that is related to slavery. So I wonder if you could talk a little bit just about that, and sort of the the importance of public history and in helping people understand, you know, all of these sorts of things that we're talking about?

Dr. Isabela Morales  37:24  
Yeah, absolutely. So I am the editor of the Princeton Slavery Project at Princeton University, which is, you know, like a lot of university slavery studies over the past years and decades, it's exploring Princeton's historical ties to the institution of slavery. And I've been working on this project since 2013, you know, with the research team at Princeton. And this has been a really valuable, first of all, Introduction to public history for me when I started as a graduate student, but it's also going to show me, it's also gone to show me, you know, how important this information is to communities. You know, in 2015, when we were two years into the research, there were big protests on campus, at Princeton, from students over, you know, a number of things, but partly the name of the public policy school, which at the time was the Woodrow Wilson School. And students, you know, who were aware of Wilson's very problematic legacy and his, you know, reintroduction of segregation into the federal government, you know, and his white supremacist beliefs in many cases, they, they didn't want to have a school that was named for him and didn't think it was right to be honoring him in that way. And what was interesting to those of us working on the Princeton Slavery Project at the time was that there was no discussion of the deeper legacies of white supremacy at Princeton, because information about Princeton's relationship to slavery and the history of slavery in the town and the community and New Jersey in general, were not widely known by students or by members of the community. And so by getting that information out there, we were hoping to and have been able to ensure that, that activists, that students, that educators have all of the information that they need in order to make change happen and to have productive debates. Because at the time, you know, the full story of Princeton's relationship to race and white supremacy wasn't known, because this research hadn't been done previously and hadn't yet been disseminated. So that just went to show me the power of doing historical research in order to help communities understand where they come from, where they fall in the history, the broader history of a state or of the nation. I also work for the Stoutsburg Sourland African American Museum, which is a small, Black history museum in central New Jersey. It's central Jersey's only Black history museum at the moment. And so through that work with SAM, as we call the museum, I have been able to, you know, get involved with another local community and see how sharing history is able to bring people together, to educate people, to motivate people to kind of build a better future on that foundation of knowledge that we're able to get through historical research.

Kelly Therese Pollock  40:33  
Yeah, well, I hope that everyone will, will read your research. So can you tell everyone how to get a copy of your book?

Dr. Isabela Morales  40:41  
Absolutely. So my book is "Happy Dreams of Liberty: an American Family in Slavery and Freedom," and it is available from Oxford University Press at the Oxford University Press website or at Amazon or through other booksellers, and hopefully for some of you at your local bookstore.

Kelly Therese Pollock  40:59  
And very helpfully, it has a family tree. So all of these names that we have talked about, it will be clear how they're all related.

Dr. Isabela Morales  41:09  
And I will say that visualizing and creating that family tree may have been the hardest part of the final book production process, because it is hard for me even after 10 years to keep a lot of the relationships straight. So hopefully that will be helpful to readers. 

Kelly Therese Pollock  41:25  
 Yeah. Is there anything else you wanted to make sure we talked about?

Dr. Isabela Morales  41:28  
I think that I'd like to just reiterate something that Tiya Miles writes in "Ties That Bind," which is another story of a formerly enslaved family, that I found really influential and inspirational in writing this book, is how family stories are significant because sometimes local histories or family histories get get short shrift in in terms of comparison with more sweeping national or international stories. And what Miles says is that, you know, families are barometers for the societies that they lived in, for the times and places that the people lived in because of the ways that federal, state, and local governments have historically tried to define and regulate the family. You know, so in the Townsends' case, one example where we see that as in the laws of slavery, that delegitimized Samuel and Edmund's children and denied their mothers the right to marry or to any legal rights for themselves or their children, or the fact that the state of Alabama considered the presence of the Townsends as the heirs of a wealthy white planter, and as former slaves so unacceptable that they were forced to leave the state altogether. You know, but at the same time, social norms differed radically from community to community. So 1000 miles west in Georgetown, Colorado, Charles Osborne, Townsend is welcomed as an equal, you know, and as we all know, history is very complicated. But I think that these individual stories or family stories, these detailed, fine grained studies can really show us how diverse and complex people's lived experiences really were. Which is something that the quote unquote, bigger stories often can't or don't address. So that is my pitch for family history, and why it's important, which I often find myself making.

Kelly Therese Pollock  43:26  
Yeah, yeah, definitely. And I love the that you quote Tiya Miles. She's one of my very favorite authors. So same same. I think that anyone who's read her more recent book, too, about Ashley's sack, you know, you can see just how deep you can get into something just by looking at one small family.

Dr. Isabela Morales  43:49  
That's that's a fantastic book, too. 

Kelly Therese Pollock  43:52  
Well, Isabella, thank you so, so much for speaking with me. I really enjoyed this. And everyone should go check out your book. It is so readable. I just sort of devoured it. I hope everyone will go pick up a copy.

Dr. Isabela Morales  44:06  
Thank you. That is the ultimate compliment for a historian and I really appreciate I really appreciate you taking the time to talk with me about it and to read it.

Teddy  44:15  
Thanks for listening to Unsung History. You can find the sources used for this episode @UnsungHistorypodcast.com. To the best of our knowledge, all audio and images used by Unsung History are in the public domain or are used with permission. You can find us on Twitter, or Instagram @Unsung__History, or on Facebook @UnsungHistorypodcast. To contact us with questions or episode suggestions, please email Kelly@UnsungHistorypodcast.com. If you enjoyed this podcast, please rate and review and tell your friends.

 

R. Isabela Morales Profile Photo

R. Isabela Morales

R. Isabela Morales is a public historian based in New Jersey. She is the Editor and Project Manager of Princeton University's expansive public history initiative, The Princeton & Slavery Project; her research for the project has been featured in The New York Times. She is also the Digital Projects Manager at the Stoutsburg Sourland African American Museum, central New Jersey's first Black history museum.

​Dr. Morales received her Ph.D. in history from Princeton University in 2019, specializing in the 19th-century United States, slavery, and emancipation. She completed an M.A. in history from Princeton in 2014 and a B.A. in history and American Studies from The University of Alabama in 2012, where she first began the research that would become ​Happy Dreams of Liberty. She is committed to making historical research accessible to diverse audiences, and has lectured widely on slavery and American history at conferences and community events.