Document Type


Date of Degree

Spring 2017

Access Restrictions

Access restricted until 07/13/2019

Degree Name

PhD (Doctor of Philosophy)

Degree In


First Advisor

Schwalm, Leslie A.

First Committee Member

Warren, Stephen

Second Committee Member

Giblin, James

Third Committee Member

Marra, Kim

Fourth Committee Member

Thaggert, Miriam


This dissertation is a social and cultural history about the ways that African Americans contributed to national debates about race, slavery, and emancipation by constructing and performing their own representations of slavery for the public. Scholars often portray these larger debates as a contest of ideas among whites, but African Americans played an important and still understudied role in shaping the white public’s understandings of race and slavery throughout the nineteenth century, especially in the North. Moving from from the 1830s to the early 1900s, my dissertation identifies several critical moments when African Americans, especially former slaves, gained new access to the public stage and seized opportunities to represent their own identities, histories, and experiences in different forums.

Chapter One focuses on the unique contribution that fugitive slave activists made to the abolition movement. I place the published slave narratives in a larger performative context that includes public appearances and speeches; singing and dramatic readings; and oral testimony given in more private settings. In contrast to the sympathetic but frequently disempowering rhetoric of white abolitionists, fugitive activists used their performances to construct a positive representation of black manhood and womanhood that showed slaves not as benevolent objects in need of rescue but as strong men and women ready to enter freedom on equal terms.

Chapter Two focuses on the Civil War, when runaway slaves had new opportunities to communicate their understandings of slavery and freedom to the Northerners who sent south during the war, as soldiers, missionaries, and aid workers. “Contraband” slaves’ testimony revealed the prevalence of violence and family separation, as well as slaves’ willingness to endure great hardship in pursuit of freedom. Contraband men and women also worked to publicly assert their new identities as freedpeople when they preemptively claimed the rights of citizenship and power over their own bodies. Their testimony and actions challenged white Northerners to embrace emancipation as an explicit Union war aim.

Chapter Three of my dissertation examines black performance on the formal stage, 1865-1890s, by focusing on three groups of black performers: African American minstrels, the Hyers Sisters Dramatic Company, and the Fisk Jubilee Singers. Capitalizing on Northerners’ increased interest in slavery and “authentic” black performers, these groups offered their own representations of slavery and emancipation to the public, sometimes disrupting whites’ romanticized image of the “old plantation” in the process. During an era when the country moved toward reconciliation and reunion, these performances kept the issue of slavery before the public and, in some cases, contributed to an emancipationist memory of the war which challenged contemporary Northerners to protect the rights of freedpeople.

My final chapter focuses on the autobiographies written and published by formerly enslaved women post-1865. My analysis of the women’s narratives as a body of work challenges the prevailing notion that post-bellum slave narratives were focused on regional reconciliation and the writer’s successful life in freedom. Women writers continued to remember and represent slavery as a brutal institution and revealed the ways that it continued to shape their lives in freedom, challenging contemporary images of the “old plantation” and devoted, self-sacrificing “Mammy.” Through their writing, these women represented African American women as central actors in stories of resistance, survival, and self-emancipation.

With sustained attention to the deeply gendered nature of these representations, my dissertation sheds new light on the unique ways that African American women participated in these larger social debates and contributed to the public’s understanding of race and slavery before, during, and after the Civil War. Moving beyond the traditional periodization of U.S. slavery and emancipation and the typical focus on actors within a single, organized social movement, my project uncovers the breadth and diversity of African Americans’ public representations of slavery and freedom in contexts that were simultaneously social, cultural, and political. Using a broad range of published and unpublished archival materials, my work reveals African Americans’ distinct contribution to national debates regarding slavery’s place in the nation and the future of the men and women held within it.

Public Abstract

Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin became a cultural touchstone for the American public’s understanding of slavery in the nineteenth century. Scholars have spent a great deal of time examining white-authored representations of slavery as a critical site for constructing ideas about race, but the ways that African Americans contributed to this discourse with their own representations of slavery remains far less explored. African Americans created their own public representations of race, slavery, and emancipation throughout the nineteenth century. These representations took a variety of forms, including written and spoken testimony about the slave experience, musical and theatrical representations of slavery and emancipation, and public displays and assertions of African Americans’ new status as freedpeople during and after the Civil War. I examine the work that representations performed in particular historical contexts, including the antebellum abolition movement; the unfolding drama of the Civil War; and the post-bellum theater and literary marketplace. Entering a public sphere that was saturated with white-authored representations of slavery (including blackface minstrelsy, proslavery rhetoric, and romanticized images of the “old plantation”), African Americans’ representations offered a critical counternarrative that emphasized enslaved people’s humanity, capacity, resilience, and resistance.


African American, Civil War, emancipation, race, slavery


ix, 373 pages


Includes bibliographical references (pages 352-373).


Copyright © 2017 Heather Lee Cooper

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