penningroth

A Northwestern University history professor is one of 23 winners of the $500,000 MacArthur Foundation fellowships announced today.

Dylan C. Penningroth of Northwestern is a historian who examines shifting concepts of property ownership and kinship in order to shed light on long-obscured aspects of African American life under slavery and in the half-century following slavery’s abolition.

Penningroth is the only recipient living in the Midwest. A majority of the other winners live either in California, New York or Massachusetts.

The awards, sometimes called genius gants, come with no strings attached and are spread across a wide range of fields. Winners this year include a pediatric neurosurgeon, a marine ecologist, a journalist, a photographer, an optical physicist and astronomer, a stringed-instrument bow maker, a geochemist, a fiction writer, and an arts entrepreneur. All were selected for their creativity, originality, and potential to make important contributions in the future.

The foundation says the awards offer unprecedented freedom and opportunity to reflect, create, and explore.

MacArthur President Robert Gallucci said, “The MacArthur Fellowship is not only a recognition of their impressive past accomplishments but also, more importantly, an investment in their potential for the future. We believe in their creative instincts and hope the freedom the Fellowship provides will enable them to pursue unfettered their insights and ideas for the benefit of the world.”

Penningroth, in his book The Claims of Kinfolk, published in 2003, explores the informal customs that slaves in the antebellum South used to recognize ownership of property, even while they were themselves considered by law to be property at the time.

He also traces the interactions of these extra-legal, vernacular customs with the formal realm of law after emancipation by teasing stories of claims and disputes from such sources as the Freedman’s Bureau and Southern Claims Commission records compiled by the federal government after the Civil War.

In addition to demonstrating that ownership of land, livestock, and other material possessions was much more widespread among slave communities than previously believed, Penningroth’s research draws out the underlying social relations and reliance on family members’ labor that made such ownership possible.

To broaden the scope of his study, Penningroth extended his investigation across the Atlantic to Africa’s Gold Coast and found informative historical connections among societies that dealt with legacies of slavery and emancipation in the late nineteenth century.

His current projects expand upon this transatlantic approach, exploring the importance of lineage and issues of inheritance for slave-descended people in early twentieth-century Ghana and mining Southern court records to uncover the experiences of African Americans who made use of local courts during the decades that followed emancipation.

By compiling evidence from vast and widely scattered archives, Penningroth is painting a more vivid picture of relationships between parents and children, husbands and wives, and illuminating the ways communities of slaves and their descendents recognized what belonged to whom.

Penningroth received a B.A. in 1993 from Yale University and an M.A. in 1996 and a Ph.D. in 2000 from Johns Hopkins University.

He was affiliated with the University of Virginia from 1999 to 2002 prior to his appointment as associate professor in the Department of History at Northwestern University in 2003. Since 2007, he has also been an American Bar Foundation research professor.

Bill Smith is the editor and publisher of Evanston Now.

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