Rosalie had been a slave for 20 years.
After persuading her master to sign a piece of paper declaring her and her children’s freedom, she left for Cuba.
When she arrived, she discovered that her freedom was limited because the paper had not been notarized. Additionally, her second daughter would have to spend another 20 years in slavery to pay off debts on the estate.
After three decades of research, history Prof. Rebecca Scott is still shocked by stories like Rosalie’s.
“When you spend time documenting how a life really was, as more than just a name on paper, you come to realize how fragile freedom really is,” she said. “It’s important to remember life histories, not just conventional historical figures.”
Two weeks ago, Scott was selected as the eighth recipient of the prestigious Frederick Douglass Prize for the best book on slavery or abolition. It’s an achievement she credits to a lifelong dedication to the study of slavery.
She received a $25,000 award for her book “Degrees of Freedom: Louisiana and Cuba after Slavery.” Scott spent decades researching the book, which explores the aftermath of slavery by tracing the lives of several families in slave communities.
Telling the story of slavery is a daunting task, Scott said. She said she constantly strives to strike a balance between documenting the overwhelming brutality that occurred before abolition and the opportunities that arose afterward.
When Scott decided to write a book, she was no stranger to the material.
Slavery has always fascinated Scott. She focused her interest on Cuba and the Gulf region in 1976, when the civil rights movement was transforming the study of slavery across the continent. At that time, the study of slavery in Cuba was a relatively under-examined field of study.
After arriving at the University in 1980, Scott found many faculty members dedicated to researching slavery and was able to develop a community, she said.
“This book is the result of a collaborative effort by the wonderful University community,” Scott said.
To research the book, Scott spent time in neighborhoods near sugar plantations in Cuba and Louisiana. She talked with several families about the effects of slavery on their lives and the lives of their ancestors. Since her book was published, Scott has continued to research slavery’s impact on individuals’ lives. She studied Rosalie from France.
Although she could not say why her book was chosen over the other two finalists, “Carry Me Back: The Domestic Slave Trade in American Life” by Steven Deyle and “The Sugar Masters: Planters and Slaves in Louisiana’s Cane World, 1820-1860” by Richard Follett, Scott speculated that the time she spent with these families and the relationships she developed set her book apart.
“I think that my book was in part fueled by the stimulating experience of collecting oral histories,” she said. “If I could tell someone else’s story, that made me feel successful.”
Named for Frederick Douglass, a man who escaped slavery to become one of the 19th Century’s great abolitionists, writers and orators, the award will be presented to Scott at a dinner in New York City next February.
The prize, sponsored by the Gilder Lehrman Institute, is the largest one awarded in the field.
Larry Hudson, who chairs the committee that selected the winners, said the ample prize should be considered in terms of “the esteem in which Frederick Douglass’s life and work is held by the Gilder Lehrman Institute and by the academy and the country as a whole.”