Geneva Smith Awarded Princeton's Top Graduate Student Honor

Written by
Liz Fuller-Wright, Office of Communications
Feb. 23, 2024

José de Jesús Montaño López, Geneva Smith, Pasquale Toscano and Ryan Unger have been named winners of the Porter Ogden Jacobus Fellowship, Princeton University’s top honor for graduate students.

The Jacobus Fellows will be honored at Alumni Day ceremonies Saturday, Feb. 24.

The fellowships support the students’ final year of study at Princeton and are awarded to one Ph.D. student in each of the four divisions — humanities, social sciences, natural sciences and engineering — whose work has exhibited the highest scholarly excellence. All four fellows plan to pursue academic careers.

Geneva Smith

Smith, a sixth-year doctoral student in the Department of History who came to Princeton in 2016, earned her bachelor’s degree in anthropology and history from Columbia University in 2014. She took a leave during her Ph.D. studies to enroll at Yale Law School, crafting her own joint Ph.D./J.D. program.

Her dissertation, “Slave Courts and Compensation in the Eighteenth-Century British Atlantic,” examines the judicial system that exclusively tried the crimes of enslaved people in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Smith has built a massive archive of these court records that she unearthed in Pennsylvania, Maryland and Jamaica.

“Archives are spaces of mystery,” Smith said. “Each manuscript piece that I find, and each court case that I compile helps us paint a more complex and richer picture of what Black life was. I really got excited by the challenge of multiple historians saying, ‘These records don’t exist.’ ‘There’s no way to tell this story.’ I think I just love going to archives and seeing the records and realizing not only are they there, but we can actually build out a really rich story with what exists.”

“As a Black woman who has been through the legal system and faced its inequalities, I am uniquely positioned to do legal-historical work,” she said.

Said her adviser Wendy Warren, associate professor of history, “It’s important to underscore again the newness and consequence of this work: Because scholars had long believed records of these courts were lost, they had dismissed their importance.”

Her co-adviser Hendrik Hartog, Princeton’s Class of 1921 Bicentennial Professor in the History of American Law and Liberty, Emeritus, praised her as “the best researcher I’ve ever had as a graduate student” in his 45 years teaching at Princeton.

“Geneva is an extraordinarily talented young woman who managed to surmount quite terrible burdens in her early years,” he said. “She is strong-willed, stable, thoughtful and she has a good heart.”

He emphasized the extraordinary impact her work has had and will continue to have.

“Her results are transformative and will change the way historians write both the history of slavery in the Americas and the history of race in America,” Hartog said. “The amount of work it took for her to find these records is itself extraordinary. She found records that nobody knew existed, just by persistence, by imagination, by thinking about how to read records against what the label says they would say.”

He praised the “relentless determination” that carried Smith into more than 30 archives on three continents as she deciphered and preserved thousands of crumbling, handwritten records. “She has a kind of ‘historian’s intuition’ that led her to the confidence to know that these records would exist if she just kept at it. I really admire it.”

During her time at Princeton, Smith worked on the Princeton and Slavery Project, coordinated the Colonial Americas Workshop and participated in the Black Graduate Student Caucus as well as the Graduate Women of Color Caucus. Next year, she will finish her final year at Yale Law School, where she has been the academics chair of Yale Law Women+, the academic development chair of the Yale Black Law Students Association, and a fellow in the Program for Reproductive Justice and Reproductive Rights.