The RHS Prothero Lecture, 2023: Brenda E. Stevenson, 5 July 2023

‘To Do and Be Undone: Enslaved Black Life, Courtship, and Marriage in the Antebellum South’


Professor Brenda E. Stevenson

(University of Oxford)


Wednesday, 5 July 2023
17.00 BST – Gustave Tuck Lecture Theatre, University College London, and online
Watch the video of this lecture



The trope of the missing Black family has lived large in the ambitious research designs of scholars, the critical imagination of the public, and the caustic decisions of policy makers. The reality, however, is that even through the pain and loss brought on by centuries of slavery and systemic racialised inequalities of all sorts, Black people wanted and were able to create family ties that fostered humanity, assured survival, and even undergird post-emancipation progress across the generations.

This lecture centres on the familial ideals and realities of enslaved Black people in the American South via their courtship and marriages, ritually and experientially. I will describe and analyse courtship/romantic attitudes and behaviours, the traits that adults desired and despised in a partner, the negotiations with family and captors regarding one’s choice for a spouse, and the various kinds of ceremonies (or not) that signified one’s marital commitments.

Speaker biography

Brenda E. Stevenson is an internationally recognised scholar of gender, race, slavery, family and racial conflict. Currently at the University of Oxford, she is the inaugural Hillary Rodham Clinton Chair of Women’s History at St. John’s College. At UCLA, where she has spent most of her career, she served as the inaugural Nickoll Family Endowed Professor of History and Professor of African American Studies. Her published works include: Life in Black and White: Family and Community in the Slave South; The Contested Murder of Latasha Harlins: Justice, Gender and the Origins of the Los Angeles Riots; and What is Slavery?  along with multiple edited volumes and articles on women, race, film, family and art. Her latest monograph, What Sorrows Labor in My Parent’s Breast?: A History of the Enslaved Black Family was published by Rowman-Littlefield in April 2023.

Professor Stevenson’s publications have garnered numerous awards, including the James Rawley Book Prize, the Ida B. Wells Barnett Award, and the Gustavus Meyer Book Prize. Her research has been supported by, among others, the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, the Ford and Mellon Foundations, the American Association of University Women, the Center for Advanced Study, the National Humanities Center and the American Academy in Berlin. She is the recipient of the John Blassingame Award for Mentorship and Scholarship, the Carter G. Woodson Medallion and Yale’s Wilbur Cross Alumni Medal.  She is a Distinguished Lecturer for the Organization of American Historians. Her interviews and commentaries can be heard on NPR affiliates and other national and international media outlets. Stevenson recently has been appointed by President Biden to serve on the Civil Rights Cold Case Records Review Board.



More on the Royal Historical Society’s events programme, 2023 >


HEADER IMAGE: ‘Dance or Ball, White Sulfur Springs, Virginia, 1838’ by Christian Freidrich Mayr, public domain (detail)