Yale Announces 2023 Frederick Douglass Book Prize Finalists

Frederick Douglass
August 29, 2023

New Haven, Conn.— Yale University’s Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition today has announced the finalists for the twenty-fifth annual Frederick Douglass Book Prize, one of the most coveted awards for the study of the African American experience. Jointly sponsored by the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History in New York City and the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition at the MacMillan Center at Yale University, this annual prize of $25,000 recognizes the best book written in English on the topics of slavery, resistance, or abolition published in the preceding year.

The finalists for the 2023 prize are: R. Isabela Morales for “Happy Dreams of Liberty: An American Family in Slavery and Freedom” (Oxford University Press); Simon P. Newman for “Freedom Seekers: Escaping from Slavery in Restoration London” (University of London Press); and David Silkenat for “Scars on the Land: An Environmental History of Slavery in the American South” (Oxford University Press).

The winner will be announced following the Douglass Prize Review Committee meeting in the fall, and the award will be presented at a celebration at Trinity Church Wall Street in New York City on February 28, 2024.

From a total of 78 submissions, the finalists were selected by a jury of scholars that included Kerry Ward (Chair), Associate Professor of History at Rice University; Trevor Burnard, Professor and Director of the Wilberforce Institute for the Study of Slavery and Emancipation, University of Hull; and Waldo E. Martin, Alexander F. & May T. Morrison Professor of American History & Citizenship, University of California, Berkeley.

The jury’s descriptions of the three finalists follow.

“Happy Dreams of Liberty” by R. Isabela Morales is a compelling multi-generational family saga that shows us the shifting meanings of race and gender in the United States as they relate to privilege and hardship – and how what it meant to be free depended on where and when you lived. Morales shows her skill as an historian by giving readers well-researched historical contexts of the regions in which family members settled and moved. She reveals her gifts as a writer by using family letters and archival sources to bring to life their individual struggles for equality and a better future for their loved ones. Dr. Morales is the Education and Exhibit Manager for the Stoutsburg Sourland African American Museum in Skillman, New Jersey.

In “Freedom Seekers,” Simon Newman turns our preconceptions of racial slavery as being a product of colonialism by showing us how embedded it was in Restoration London. He takes us on a vivid a tour of the neighborhoods and docksides of the city, introducing readers to the large and diverse communities of Black Londoners. Through press reports and contemporary illustrations, we can imagine the escape routes of enslaved Africans and South Asians who sought their freedom by melding into the metropolis. Newman also shows us the world of enslavers who used London’s first established newspaper for runaway advertisements to secure their return. “Freedom Seekers” is a powerful testimony to people’s desire for liberty and control over their lives. Currently a Research Fellow at the Institute for Research in the Humanities, University of Wisconsin at Madison, Dr. Newman is the Sir Denis Brogan Professor of American History (Emeritus) and Honorary Professorial Research Fellow at the University of Glasgow.

David Silkenat’s elegantly written yet often chilling book, “Scars on the Land,” deals with how enslaved men and women worked and lived in the physical environment of the antebellum U.S. South. It is the first comprehensive history of nineteenth-century slavery to examine in depth how the environment fundamentally shaped the contours of every aspect of enslaved peoples’ sometimes miserable existence, and how in turn enslaved people shaped the environment they lived in. It is a stunning work of scholarship that provides new insights into American slavery by taking seriously the fragility of a landscape shaped, and indeed scarred, by the demands of an environmentally destructive plantation regime. Dr. Silkenat is a Senior Lecturer in American History in the School of History, Classics and Archaeology at the University of Edinburgh.

The Frederick Douglass Book Prize was established by the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History and the Gilder Lehrman Center in 1999 to stimulate scholarship in the field by honoring outstanding accomplishments. The award is named for Frederick Douglass (1818–1895), an enslaved person who escaped bondage to emerge as one of the great American abolitionists, reformers, writers, and orators of the nineteenth century.

The mission of the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition (GLC) is to support academic excellence in the study of slavery and its enduring legacies, make this knowledge freely available to the public, and foster work toward social justice. Launched in November, 1998 through generous contributions from philanthropists Richard Gilder and Lewis Lehrman, the GLC is affiliated with the Whitney and Betty MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies at Yale University. The Center is committed to creating and disseminating knowledge about slavery and its legacies across all borders and all time, with free public programs open to scholars, students, and the general community. The GLC supports research fellowships, the Frederick Douglass Book Prize, scholarly working groups, international conferences, publications, and educational workshops for secondary school teachers and students, domestic and international. For further information on events and programming, and to find out how you can support the continuing work of the GLC, visit https://glc.yale.edu/ or contact the Center by phone at (203) 432-3339 or e-mail gilder.lehrman.center@yale.edu.

The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History was founded in 1994 by Richard Gilder and Lewis E. Lehrman, visionaries and lifelong supporters of American history education. The Institute is the leading nonprofit organization dedicated to K–12 history education while also serving the general public. Its mission is to promote the knowledge and understanding of American history through educational programs and resources. As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit public charity, the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History is supported through the generosity of individuals, corporations, and foundations. The Institute’s programs have been recognized by awards from the White House, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Organization of American Historians, the Council of Independent Colleges, and the Daughters of the American Revolution. For further information, visit gilderlehrman.org or call (646) 366-9666.