American studies associate professor awarded fellowship

Hayden Clark

American studies associate professor Shirley Thompson received a Mellon Foundation New Directions Fellowship on March 20. The grant will aid in Thompson’s work and research in writing her book “No More Auction Block for Me.”

The book, a culmination of her research, will examine the effects of slavery on the treatment of newly-freed African-Americans in the post-Civil War era by examining law and economics during the time period.   

“My larger project is about African-Americans’ conceptions of property and ownership, so property is kind of the organizing principle,” Thompson said. “My starting point is that I’m thinking about property from the point of view of this legacy in African-American history, having been owned as property as slaves … rather than persons under the Constitution.”

One of the aspects Thompson will look at is the insurance market during the post-Civil War era and the implications it had on African-American lives.

“In the broader insurance industry, African-American lives were deemed risky — certainly too risky for premium life insurance policies, which were kind of emerging as a marker of middle-class status,” Thompson said. “The question is what does it mean to place value on African-American lives at this moment [when] they’re consistently being devalued in the larger broader American culture?” 

Elizabeth Engelhardt, American studies professor and department chair, said the award will allow for Thompson to incorporate other fields into her American studies research.

“What’s really exciting about this fellowship is that it’s a chance for her to really develop her skills in a couple of disciplines that are sometimes further removed from American studies,” Engelhardt said. “So she will be working in economics and law and being able to bring those to our American studies community and our American studies classrooms.”

American studies professor Steven Hoelscher said Thompson’s research branches out from traditional American studies research.

“One of the things that impresses me the most about her is her unwillingness to sit back on her laurels,” Hoelscher said. “She realizes that if she’s going to be studying property and economic resource she needs to learn more about economic models, economic utility and economic interpretations of the world. She is putting herself in the position of learning all these new tools, so that she can study and then state authoritatively her central issue of the role of property in African-American life.”