Graduate Student Spotlight: Charnan Williams, PhD Candidate in History

Photo of grant recipient, Charnan Williams, PhD Candidate in History
Charnan Williams (PhD Candidate, History)
Photo of grant recipient, Charnan Williams, PhD Candidate in History
Charnan Williams (PhD Candidate, History)

A PhD Candidate in the History Department, Charnan Williams’ work reconsiders the role of race, freedom, and slavery in the American West. Expanding upon recent scholarship, Williams hopes to deconstruct the myth of a free and equal California during the antebellum period through the end of the Civil War.  

With attention to race, labor and gender, Williams’ project, “Claiming Property: Enslaving Black Women and Female Children in Antebellum California,” investigates how alternative legal practices, such as guardianship laws, allowed for the continuation of slavery in a “free” state. During the 1800s, guardianship laws, which assign decision-making authority over an individual, identified Black children as wards of the state. Despite claims from parents and other relatives, these laws allowed slaveholders to maintain ownership over Black children. Not wanting to abandon their children, Black women were effectively coerced into providing domestic labor to the white custodians of their children.

As one of the 2017 Boyd/Williams Dissertation Grant recipients, Williams utilized her fellowship to study primary documents in various California archives. This past year, she visited the Seaver Center for Western History Research and the Huntington Library that house early California legal records, wills, and correspondences. Through her research, Williams found critical documents showing how black women and children were impacted by the practice of enslavement through guardianship laws in the free state of California from 1850 to 1865.

Interestingly, Williams notes that many of the cases she found were noticeably gendered, with young girls appearing more frequently than boys in the state records. The reasoning behind such an occurrence is still unclear and a question Williams plans to explore further. While many assume the west was an open frontier space prior to the Civil War, Williams’ work reveals that for Black women and girls in “free” Los Angeles, it often represented a place of slavery and servitude.

Commenting on her research, Williams says she was, “...surprised at how much the archival records illuminated the struggle for freedom for both free and enslaved Black women and children in California and to what extent prominent families of post-annexation California played a role in these processes.” Although infant children who ranged from a few months to one year could not possibly be utilized for labor, Williams added, “many of these children were front and center in guardianship cases, which ultimately led to their parents being coerced to service white households.” Still in the preliminary research phase of her dissertation, Williams expects to continue her research and complete her first chapter draft by the end of December 2017.

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