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2014 Outreach Grant Report: Working Group on Children

On June 4, 2014, an SHCY Outreach Grant helped the Working Group on Children at the University of California, Santa Cruz bring Mary Niall Mitchell, Joseph Tregle Professor in Early American History, Ethel and Herman Midlo Chair in New Orleans Studies, and Associate Professor at the University of New Orleans, to present her current project exploring children, photography, and the politics of abolition in the nineteenth century United States.

Mitchell, author of Raising Freedom’s Child: Black Children and Visions of the Future after Slavery (New York University Press, 2010), presented “The Slave Girl in the Archive: A Tale of Paper and Glass,” a talk drawing on her current research. Mitchell’s project tells the story of a girl named Mary Botts, the first light-skinned formerly enslaved child to be photographed for abolitionist purposes. Beginning with the deposit of the child’s daguerreotype portrait at the Massachusetts Historical Society in 1921, Mitchell unspools the history of Mary’s family and their long efforts to be free from slavery. “The Slave Girl in the Archive” uses this narrative to explore connections between the lives of enslaved people and the variety of documents and artifacts that contain traces of them. The talk attracted a lively audience of about thirty-five people, drawing faculty and graduate students from across disciplines, including History, Literature, Politics, and Philosophy to the campus’s weekly Cultural Studies Colloquium. 

In addition to the talk, Prof. Mitchell led a workshop directly addressing the possibilities and challenges of writing the history of children. The workshop, entitled “Archival Challenges: Children, Slavery and Nineteenth Century Visual Culture,” included a discussion of pre-circulated readings, including selections from Robin Bernstein’s Racial Innocence: Performing American Childhood from Slavery to Civil Rights (New York University Press, 2011), Mary Langdon’s Ida May: A Story of Things Actual and Possible (London, 1854), Alan Trachtenberg, “Reading Lessons: Stories of a Daguerreotype,” Nineteenth Century Contexts 22 (2001), 537-557, and Mitchell’s recent piece in the New York Times’ Disunion blog, “The Young White Faces of Slavery,” January 30, 2014. The workshop was attended by a mixture of faculty and graduate student participants in the Working Group on Children. The conversation ranged widely but was particularly focused on the value of fiction in attempting to reconstruct the historical values attached to childhood, as well as the importance of historical investigation to illuminate the distance between sentimental representations and children’s historical lives. The Institute for Humanities Research at the University of California, Santa Cruz also provided support for both events. 

For more information on the event, including audio of the talk, please visit this website.