The Frederick Douglass Prize is awarded by Yale University's Gilder Lehrman Center and recognizes the best book written on slavery, resistance, or abolition in the last year. From the press release:
Gilder Lehrman Center director David W. Blight commended the two books for the “breadth and depth of their scholarship and sensitive treatment of human-centered struggles for emancipation.” Jury chair Kerry Ward added that, in combination, the “compelling writing” of the winning books helps readers understand “the diversity of the experiences of slavery in different times and places,” with people centered at the heart of these stories.
Simon Newman's book is Freedom Seekers: Escaping from Slavery in Restoration London, and is available from the University of Chicago Press. Scars on the Land: An Environmental History of Slavery in the American South, by Dr. David Silkenat of the University of Edinburgh, was also shortlisted for this year's prize, and is available from Oxford University Press.
I got a big surprise this summer when I learned that the Society of Civil War Historians had named Happy Dreams of Liberty the winner of their 2023 Tom Watson Brown Book Award. Part of the surprise came from the fact that this is an award for "the best book published on the causes, conduct, and effects, broadly defined, of the Civil War," and I hadn't really thought of my book as a Civil War story.
Happy Dreams of Liberty focuses on the lives of the Townsend family under slavery, through their emancipation in 1860 (shortly before the Civil War), and in their struggle for freedom and equality across the country in the decades after. One of the Townsends, Charles Osborne, did enlist in the Union Army during the war, but he served as a clerk and quartermaster in Union-occupied Vicksburg for just a year. His experience of wartime wasn't blood and battles; it was paperwork and patrol duty. The other Townsends spent the war farming, teaching, marrying, and raising families. The war itself takes up only a few pages in the entire book.
"Marriage of a Colored Soldier at Vicksburg," Harper's Weekly, 20 June 1866. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
The illustration above depicts a Freedmen's Bureau chaplain marrying an African American soldier and his bride. Processing paperwork for legal marriages -- which were denied enslaved people -- would have been one of Charles Osborne Townsend's tasks as a clerk in Vicksburg.
Last February, I was honored to receive the The Huntington Library's 2023 Shapiro Book Prize for the best first book in American history and culture. Often, the "big" histories (sweeping national narratives and presidential biographies) are the books that get the most attention. For the prize jury to recognize the significance of the enslaved family's story at the heart of Happy Dreams of Liberty is an immense honor and a validation of all the "small" stories out there that expand our understanding of what -- and who -- count as important pieces of American history.
You can check out the public lecture I gave at the Huntington in February on YouTube.