EB: It is a long history. When I first entered Graduate School at William and Mary, I became very interested in the history of slavery in New England and the law because I encountered Lucy Terry Prince, a former slave who had defended herself in court and fought for her son to go to a white college soon after the Revolutionary War. So many aspects of this fascinated me… But especially two issues: The presence and absence of slavery in Massachusetts and the way a black woman had access and felt empowered to use the courts.
So, I began to explore slavery and the law in Massachusetts as a PhD student at Emory University. When researching Massachusetts slavery and the law I discovered something else that entranced me, a letter from the Chief Justice in Massachusetts, William Cushing, in 1783 to South Carolina’s Governor, Benjamin Guerard explaining the status of ten South Carolina fugitive slaves released from Massachusetts’ jails. The letter surprised me, again, for many reasons, but especially because it reverberated with antebellum antagonism over slavery.
This began my journey to uncover the story of these slaves, a story I call the “Tyrannicide affair” after one of the vessels that escorted the slaves to Massachusetts, and to compare the law of slavery in both South Carolina and Massachusetts. For my book, I chose to dig deep into the tumultuous world of the black experience during the Revolution to explain the social, political, and legal context in which this story lived. It led me to the Constitutional Convention and the writing of the Fugitive Slave Clause.
JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Tyrannicide?
EB: Tyrannicide argues that slave law (and the law that ended slavery) in Massachusetts and South Carolina had very different local contexts, drawing each state to regard their enslaved black populations in very different ways, writing divergent slave law, and eventually ending slavery in Massachusetts. This case elucidates the nature of that difference as these two states are drawing together in a Union, culminating in the writing of a Constitution that silently affirms the United States as a nation of slavery.
EB: This book provides a new and exciting story for us to understand the complex nature of slave law in Revolutionary America. Slavery and slave law was not developing in a vacuum in each state but was a dynamic interchange between local and national interests. This negotiation allowed the United States to form into a strong union, but the local dissonance provided the foundation for the deep cracks that slavery caused in the Constitution that other historians have already noted.
EB: I began college at University of Texas at Austin as a classics major, but was poor in languages. I began to look for other interests when I took US History from a popular professor, Dr George C. Wright. He taught us that US History was not a litany of Presidents but was an examination by historians of ordinary people. I loved learning about it, I loved the empowerment that came with historical interpretation, and I became passionate about understanding the roots of inequality in our country. I changed my majors to History and African American Studies and researched US History as much as I could at a huge university like Texas. I took a couple of years off to decide what to do after graduating, but quickly got drawn back into researching history and applied to Graduate School.
JF: What is your next project?
EB: I am coordinator of American Studies at Rowan and wanted to continue my study of slavery with an American Studies angle. I have decided to write my next project on the holiday, Juneteenth. Juneteenth commemorates the end of slavery in Texas on June 19th, 1865, over two years after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. This celebration quickly spread throughout Texas, then as Black Texans left the state during and after the Great Migration, it moved to cities throughout the US. In the past twenty years, a grassroots movement has successfully pressed for it to be recognized as a state holiday in 44 states!