2003 Frederick Douglass Prize

Books on British Emancipation and Native American Slavery Share $25,000 Frederick Douglass Prize

(New York) — A major study on the British movement to end slavery was the 2003 first prize winner of the annual Frederick Douglass Book Prize, announced by Yale University’s Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition. Second prize went to an innovative book on slavery in the Southwest Borderlands.

The $25,000 annuBook Cover, The Mighty Experimental award for the year’s best non-fiction book on slavery, resistance and/or abolition, is the most generous history prize in the field, and the most respected and coveted of the major awards for the study of the black experience.

Seymour Drescher, University Professor of History at the University of Pittsburgh, was awarded first prize and $20,000 for his book The Mighty Experiment: Free Labor versus Slavery in British Emancipation (Oxford). Drescher’s book explores the debate over slavery and free labor within Britain, focusing on the crucial role of scholars and politicians who were prominent there in the new field of social science. The abolition of slavery became, for them, an experiment that would test scientific principles, even while the actual move to abolish slavery proved, ironically, to be driven by politics rather than scientific research.

Commented Richard Gilder and Lewis E. Lehrman, the philanthropists who endow the Frederick Douglass Prize: “Seymour Drescher’s remarkable book demonstrates a mastery of the new social science of the anti-slavery era, a command of the many and varied motivations of the leaders of the movement, and a comprehensive grasp of the decisive cause of its success. We are proud to honor him with this year’s prize for his thoroughly innovative, and much-needed study.”

James F. Brooks received second prize and $5,000 for Captives and Cousins: Slavery, Kinship, and Community in the Southwest Borderlands (University of North Carolina Press). Brooks’ work explores the origins and legacies of a flourishing captive exchange economy within and among Native American and Euro-American communities throughout the Southwest Borderlands from the Spanish colonial era to the end of the nineteenth century. Brooks is a member of the research faculty and director of the SAR Press of the School of American Research in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Professor David Brion Davis, Director of the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition, lauded the two books chosen to receive this year’s prize. Concerning The Mighty Experiment, Davis observed: “For decades, Seymour Drescher has enriched and transformed our view of the British abolitionist movement and its triumphal consequences. He has decisively shown that Britain’s abolition of its African slave trade and then emancipation of some 800,000 slaves was the result of massive public mobilization, not economic self-interest.

Davis added with regard to Captives and Cousins: “Until James F. Brooks, virtually all historians of American slavery have ignored the Spanish Southwest — the region acquired by the U.S. in 1848, as a result of the Mexican War. Brooks portrays and analyzes forms of slavery and captivity among the Indians and Spanish that differed markedly from the Anglo-American bondage to the east. The books by both Drescher and Brooks will have a lasting impact on our understanding of New World slavery and its abolition.”

Two other books were singled out for honorable mention: In the Shadow of Slavery: African Americans in New York City, 1626-1863 by Leslie M. Harris (University of Chicago Press), a book dealing with, among other subjects, the African Burial Ground unearthed in Lower Manhattan in 1991; and Black Identity and Black Protest in the Antebellum North by Patrick Rael.

This year’s winning books were selected from a field of nearly 50 entries by a jury of scholars chaired by David W. Blight (Yale University) and including David Eltis (Emory University) and Ariela J. Gross (UCLA Law School). The prizes were awarded at a gala dinner at the Yale Club of New York on February 26, 2004.

The Frederick Douglass Prize was established in 1999 to stimulate scholarship in the field by honoring outstanding accomplishments. The award is named for Frederick Douglass (1818-1895), the onetime slave who escaped bondage to emerge as one of the great American abolitionists, reformers, writers, and orators of the 19th century.