Final Public Oral Exam: R. Isabela Morales

Final Public Oral Examination
Event date: 
June 11, 2019 - 10:00am
Seminar Series: 
Final Public Oral Exam

Willing Freedom: An American Family and the 19th-Century Landscape of Race


Martha Sandweiss, adviser
Hendrik Hartog
Tera Hunter
Karl Jacoby, Columbia University


This dissertation is a narrative history of the Townsends, the enslaved, mixed-race children of a white cotton planter in Alabama who freed them and willed them his large estate when he died in 1856. In the following decades, the Townsends and their extended family migrated across the country: attending a black college in Ohio, farming in Kansas, fighting for the Union Army in Mississippi, mining for silver in Colorado Territory, and (in the case of one son) returning to Alabama to purchase part of the old plantation where he’d once been held as a slave. The details of their lives in these widely dispersed locations map a landscape of opportunity and oppression in which meanings of race and freedom—as well as concrete opportunities for social and economic mobility—were dictated by highly local circumstances.

Historians often contrast a presumed rigidity of racial caste in the United States with more flexible hierarchies in Latin America and the Caribbean. Yet in the Townsends’ time, the country’s racial regime was far from monolithic. Though white communities across the free states regularly met African American migrants with animosity and violence, the Townsends’ money and mixed-race ancestry afforded some family members the social status of “whiteness” without them seeking to permanently “pass” across the color line. Between their manumission in 1860 and the rise of Jim Crow in the 1890s, the Townsends traversed a landscape where racial hierarchies differed radically by region, state, and local community. Their experiences reveal that communities within the United States could and did approach the diversity of Latin American and Caribbean racial classifications.

In their lives and travels, the Townsends occupied a shifting space between black and white, and in-betweenness had its advantages. At the turn of the 20th century, however, the rise of Jim Crow and the “one-drop rule” shrank the middle ground the family had occupied for so long. By tracing their experiences, we can explore the complex geography of race in the second half of the 19th century—an historical moment as fluid and liminal as the mixed-race Townsends’ identities themselves.

A copy of the dissertation will be available for review two weeks before the exam in the History Graduate Student Lounge: 105 Dickinson Hall.

All are welcome and encouraged to attend.

Area of Interest: 
African American
Family History
Public History
Race & Ethnicity
Social History
American West