The Celia Project

color photo of artist Solomon Thurman with his portrait of Celia
color photo of artist Solomon Thurman with his portrait of Celia

This article was originally featured in the Fall 2015 issue of Genderscapes, IRWG's annual newsletter.

Faculty often wish to bring multiple sources of expertise and disciplinary perspectives to planning a research project. Until recently there have been few sources of support specifical- ly designated for feminist research carried out by interdisciplinary teams housed at multiple institutions. With the introduction of IRWG’s Collaborative Planning Grant in 2012, faculty and librarians can apply for grants up to $10,000 to spark connections across universities and disciplines for projects in the earliest stages of research. The grant assists in helping new research projects get underway with the hope that future applications for extramural funding will be strengthened.

Martha Jones (History, Afroamerican and African Studies, and Law), and Hannah Rosen, (formerly IRWG, currently History and American Studies, College of William and Mary) used their 2012 Collaborative Planning Grant to bring fresh insights from feminist historiography, critical race theory, and African American Studies to the case of The State of Missouri v. Celia, A Slave (1855). The Celia Project began when a graduate student gave Jones photocopies of court documents related to Celia’s trial. A previous publication, Melton McLaurin’s Celia, A Slave (1991) brought the trial to the attention of scholars and students. However, Jones and Rosen wanted to work collaboratively to analyze this pivotal legal case and the numerous newspaper stories, archival sources, and state documents surrounding the trial.

Celia, an enslaved seventeen-year-old, was convicted and hanged for the murder of Robert Newsom, the man who purchased her. Celia gave birth to two children and was pregnant with a third while living in Newsom’s household. The children Celia bore were likely Newsom’s. Celia, who did not have a last name, gave testimony corroborated by Newsom’s family that she was subject to sexual violence by Newsom and thus killed him in self-defense. Celia’s story has been of interest to historians and legal scholars because it shines a stark light on the legal status of enslaved women. The state of Missouri found Celia guilty of murder, concluding that enslaved women did not have a legal right to resist an owner’s sexual assault. Thus the court concluded, in Missouri, enslaved women could not be raped. The Celia Project uncovers how Celia’s claim to have acted in self-defense to prevent rape was at once revolutionary and legally invalid.

Rosen’s work on sexual violence during slavery and Jones’s work on legal scholarship and African American women in the nineteenth-century brought different fields of expertise to their examination of the archives and local histories surrounding Celia’s trial and conviction. As Jones notes, “We know a lot more about slavery and sexual violence than we did in 1991. We have new...theoretical apparatuses for thinking about these questions and at the same time we have an opportunity to use new archival material to which McLauren did not have access.”

Previous recipients of the Collaborative Planning Grant have used the funds for travel, to work closely with other scholars on publishing research, and for preliminary data collection. Jones and Rosen did all three in their effort to rethink the meaning of this 1855 trial. The Collaborative Planning Grant made possible a number of workshops on Celia and the legal status of enslaved women in Michigan and in Missouri. While in Missouri the project group traveled to the site of the farm where Celia was enslaved. They also worked with the local Historical Society and examined the Newsom family’s estate records.

One of the most exciting aspects of the Celia Project goes beyond Jones’s and Rosen’s collaboration with each other. Travel to Missouri allowed historical work done by local historians to be brought into conversation with the university-based Celia Project. For example, Jones and Rosen met with local artist Solomon Thurman who had been commissioned by civil rights activist Margaret Bush-Wilson to create a portrait of Celia. Although no photographs or paintings of her exist, using archival records and family photographs he imagined what Celia might have looked like as a way of reclaiming her as a historical subject and creating a visual record of her for the community.

Jones and Rosen noted that humanists are not necessarily trained in how to work col- laboratively. The IRWG Collaborative Planning Grant gave the team time and space to explore how to accomplish joint research. The Celia Project’s next steps included submitting a National Endowment for the Humanities Collaborative Research Grant. They were assisted by IRWG staff, including Contract and Grant Administrator Lisa Parker. “Working with Lisa opened our eyes to how even as humanists we could plug into a whole range of grant possibilities that would make this collaboration really sing.”

For more information about IRWG Collaborative Planning Grants, contact Jocelyn Stitt (jocstitt@umich.edu) or click here

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