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Historian to give Nebraska Lecture Oct. 6 on families who challenged slavery


Posted October 5, 2020 by Heidi Uhing

University of Nebraska-Lincoln historian William G. Thomas III will present an Oct. 6 Nebraska Lecture titled, “A Question of Freedom: The Families Who Challenged Slavery from the Nation’s Founding to the Civil War.”

Part of the Chancellor’s Distinguished Lecture Series, the lecture and live Q&A will be broadcast at 3:30 p.m. CDT from research.unl.edu/nebraskalectures. Viewers may submit questions for Thomas to unlresearch@unl.edu or via the chat function during the virtual lecture.

The talk is a preview of a book by the same title that will be published in November 2020 by Yale University Press. The book chronicles the history of Black, white and mixed families in Prince George’s County, Maryland, and the burst of freedom suits and release from slavery in the Chesapeake after the Revolution. For over 70 years, the enslaved families there filed hundreds of suits for their freedom against a powerful circle of slaveholders, beginning with the Jesuit priests who owned some of the largest plantations in the nation and founded a college at Georgetown on the Potomac River.

“This was a desperate battle between enslaved families and slaveholders in the United States over the meaning of law, rights and freedom,” Thomas said.

An intensely human and intricate story about the moral problems of slavery, the bookuncovers evidence long overlooked by historians and often dismissed in court to piece together these families’ stories.

The talk will also feature excerpts from an upcoming feature film based on the book. The film, “The Bell Affair,” is funded by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities and is in production with partners Michael Burton and Kwakiutl Dreher at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Thomas is the Angle Chair in the Humanities and professor of history. He joined the Nebraska faculty in 2005 and served as department chair from 2010-16. He has been a Guggenheim Fellow and a Lincoln Prize Finalist. He also was co-founder and director of the Virginia Center for Digital History at the University of Virginia.

Thomas has published widely recognized essays in Civil War History, The Journal of Historical Geography, The New York Times, Washington Post, EDUCAUSE Review and Inside Higher Education.

Thomas is a graduate of Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, and received his master’s and doctorate degrees in history from the University of Virginia. He currently serves on the National Historical Publications and Records Commission of the National Archives and Records Administration and is a Center for Digital Research in the Humanities faculty fellow.

The Nebraska Lectures are offered twice a year and feature faculty discussing research, scholarly and creative activity. All talks are free and open to the public. The talks will be streamed online and made available via podcast. Regular updates as well as videos from each lecture are available through the Nebraska Lectures website.

The Nebraska Lecture series is sponsored by the Research Council, Office of the Chancellor, Office of Research and Economic Development and Osher Lifelong Learning Institute.