Dylan Penningroth: Unearthing Hidden Facets of Black History

This 2012 MacArthur Fellowship recipient is doing groundbreaking work that reveals surprising aspects of African American slave life, and how it paved the way for black freedom.

BLACK HISTORY DETECTIVE: Northwestern University professor Dylan C. Penningroth was named one of 2012’s MacArthur Fellows. His ‘Genius Award’ will facilitate his ongoing study of ways that African American slaves participated in the legal realm of public life, even before emancipation. (Photo: Courtesy of the John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation)

The annual announcement of the MacArthur Fellowship “Genius Grant” Award winners always offers us a moment to pause and marvel at the richness and unconventionality of the intellectual and artistic game changers among us. They are scientists and poets, musicians and mathematicians, filmmakers and neurosurgeons. Their backgrounds are as varied as their vocations. But they all share a common creative brilliance. Each of the 23 award recipients, chosen for their unique intellectual contributions to society and culture, was awarded an unrestricted $500,000 grant to celebrate and support their work. (Ah, wouldn’t it be nice if the MacArthur judges were fans of UrbanFaith?)

For those of us who follow such things, each year there are usually one or two winners who especially stand out among the honorees and grab your interest. Last year, for me, it was Jeanne Gang, the Chicago-based architect whose adventurous and eco-friendly designs led the MacArthur judges to observe that she challenges “the aesthetic and technical possibilities of the art form.”

Of the 23 honorees announced this week, it was the work of historian Dylan Penningroth that caught my immediate attention. Penningroth, a 41-year-old associate professor of history at Northwestern University, explores the concepts of property ownership as it related to African American life under slavery and during the era following slavery’s abolition. “I study the ownership of property by slaves,” he says in a video at the MacArthur website. “I wanted to figure out how was it that slaves were able to own property when they themselves were property.”

Consequently, Penningroth has spent thousands of hours digging into historical court records, sermons, and slave narratives to piece together the antebellum and post-antebellum experience of black Americans. His research reveals a surprisingly robust participation of African American slaves in public life — owning land, getting married, making contracts, suing people. Penningroth explains, “The thing that studying law during this period has shown me is that African Americans were in it. They were participating in it. … As long as those claims didn’t threaten white supremacy, many whites were perfectly happy to let them make those claims.”

By studying this obscured aspect of the African American experience, Penningroth is breaking new ground in American history and revealing important antecedents to the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s. Chicago Tribune culture critic Howard Reich keenly recognizes this dimension. He writes of Penningroth’s work, “Though at first glance this might seem like merely a historical curiosity, in fact it points to a people strategizing under oppressive circumstances and setting the stage for expanding their rights in the 20th century.”

Penningroth also draws important connections between the early participation of African Americans in the law and the gradual development of the black church. According to Penningroth in the Tribune interview, the descendants of freed slaves “used the law to build the independent black church. We think of the church as the seed of the civil rights movement, and it was that. But the church was also a legal institution.” Though whites owned the church buildings during the slavery era, once emancipation arrives, the law allows black people to “build this religious institution, which is so central to black history,” adds Penningroth. “At the same time, building the black church pulls them into the law.”

As Penningroth continues his research, no doubt with added impetus from his newly conferred MacArthur grant, his work bears watching. “This fellowship is enormously important to me,” he says, clearly grateful. “It’s going to make it possible for me to take a story that might otherwise be limited in time and space and make it a bigger story.” A story that sheds new light not only on African American history, but American history.

About the author, Edward Gilbreath

Edward Gilbreath is editor of UrbanFaith.com and the author of Reconciliation Blues: A Black Evangelical's Inside View of White Christianity.
  1. This might explain why some were so opposed to civil rights: they may have felt like blacks could do many things (like those activities mentioned above) so why mess with the system and give them equal rights?