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Frederick Douglass Book Prize

Frederick Douglass Book Prize

Over 200 guests braved a New York City snowstorm on February 25 to attend the Gilder Lehrman Center’s Eleventh Annual Frederick Douglass Book Prize dinner honoring Annette Gordon-Reed, Professor of History at Rutgers University-Newark, Professor of Law at New York Law School, and Visiting Professor of Law at Harvard University. Gordon-Reed’s award-winning book, The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family (W.W. Norton and Company), examines the relationship between Thomas Jefferson and the enslaved family of Sally Hemmings.

In further testament to the caliber of her scholarship, Professor Gordon-Reed also received the 2010 National Humanities Medal of Honor at the White House on the same evening as the Douglass Prize dinner and was unable to attend the Douglass festivities. However, attendees at the dinner enjoyed a prerecorded televised speech in which Gordon-Reed graciously accepted the award. Other highlights of the evening included a performance by soprano Marsha Andrews, tenor Robert Mack, and pianist Raymond Jones, and a special recognition of several students from Frederick Douglass Academy in New York City.

Robert Bonner, the 2009 Jury Chair and Professor of History at Dartmouth College, spoke highly of Gordon-Reed’s work, commenting, “In Annette Gordon Reed’s The Hemingses of Monticello, an enslaved Virginia family is delivered – but not disassociated – from Thomas Jefferson's well-known sexual liaison with Sally Hemings. Gordon-Reed’s book judiciously blends the best of recent slavery scholarship with shrewd commentary on the legal structure of Chesapeake society before and after the American Revolution.”

Bonner added, “The book’s meticulous account of the mid-eighteenth century intertwining of the black Hemingses and white Wayles families sheds new light on Jefferson’s subsequent conjoining with a young female slave who was already his kin by marriage. By exploring those dynamic commitments and evasions that shaped Monticello routines, the path-breaking book provides a testament to the complexity of human relationships within slave societies and to the haphazard possibilities for both intimacy and betrayal.”

Professor Gordon-Reed, who grew up in still-segregated east Texas, became interested in Jefferson in elementary school after reading a children’s biography of him, narrated by a fictional slave boy. At 14, she joined the Book-of-the-Month Club (concealing her status as a minor) to receive Fawn Brodie’s biography, Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate Portrait. She continued her study of Jefferson’s life at Dartmouth College, where she majored in History, graduating in 1981. She attended Harvard Law School, where she was a member of the Law Review.

The Frederick Douglass Book Prize was established in 1999 to stimulate scholarship in the field of slavery and abolition by honoring outstanding books. Previous winners were Ira Berlin and Philip D. Morgan in 1999; David Eltis, 2000; David Blight, 2001; Robert Harms and John Stauffer, 2002; James F. Brooks and Seymour Drescher, 2003; Jean Fagan Yellin, 2004; Laurent Dubois, 2005; Rebecca J. Scott, 2006; Christopher Leslie Brown, 2007; and Stephanie Smallwood, 2008.