2004 Frederick Douglass Prize

Jean Fagan Yellin’s Biography of Legendary “Slave Girl” wins $25,000 Frederick Douglass Prize

(New York) - A long-awaited biography of Harriet Jacobs, who wrote the 1861 classic, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, won the annual Frederick Douglass Book Prize awarded by Yale University’s Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition.

Jean Fagan  A LifeYellin, Distinguished Professor Emerita at Pace University, was awarded the prize for her book Harriet Jacobs: A Life, which recovers the experience of this once-forgotten but remarkable woman who lived 29 years as a slave, seven of which were spent in a cramped hiding place that kept away a sexually predatory master. Yellin’s book explores beyond Jacobs’s own autobiography and traces Jacobs’s escape north, the harassment she endured by her former owner, and her return south during the Civil War to establish a school for black refugees behind Union lines.

The $25,000 annual 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. The prize was awarded at a gala dinner at the Yale Club of New York on February 24, 2005, as the capstone of Black History Month.

Richard Gilder and Lewis Lehrman, the philanthropists who endow the Frederick Douglass Prize, noted: Jean Fagan Yellin’s extraordinary book capping a brilliant career of scholarship provides painful insight into the tragic history of racial and sexual oppression in America. For this reason alone, every modern American should read it, learn from it, and make sure the bitter lessons of the past inspire a better future for men and women, white and black. We are honored indeed to honor Dr. Yellin with the 2004 prize.

David W. Blight, director of the Gilder Lehrman Center, commented: Jean Yellin’s biography of Harriet Jacobs has been eagerly anticipated by scholars and readers for almost 20 years. “To say that the result more than justifies the wait would be an understatement. This book is an extraordinary example of historical detective work, as well as a powerful piece of literature.”

Commented Lewis Perry, the John Francis Bannon, S.J. Chair of History at St. Louis University and chair of the Frederick Douglass Prize jury: “The result of imaginative and dedicated research over many years, Professor Yellin’s book is a splendid accomplishment in cultural history as well as in the history of slavery, abolition, and women’s lives. In the way that only a fine biography can, this book connects so much that is important, people, events, movements in our history over many decades. I would call it a major contribution to understanding cultural history across the color line during the nineteenth century.”

Three other books were singled out as finalists: A Nation Under Our Feet: Black Political Struggles in the Rural South from Slavery to the Great Migration by Stephen Hahn (The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press), Recreating Africa: Culture, Kinship, and Religion in the African-Portuguese World, 1441-1770 by James H. Sweet (University of North Carolina Press), and Bodies Politic: Negotiating Race in the American North, 1730-1830 by John Wood Sweet (Johns Hopkins University Press).

This year’s winning book was selected from a field of nearly 70 entries by a jury of scholars chaired by Lewis Perry (St. Louis University) and including Robert Harms (Yale University) and Brenda Stevenson (University of California, Los Angeles).

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.