Publication Date

November 1, 1999

Perspectives Section


The Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition has honored Ira Berlin (Univ. of Maryland at College Park) and Philip D. Morgan (Coll. of William and Mary) with the first annual Frederick Douglass Prize for the best book on the history of slavery. Berlin's Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery and Morgan’s Slave Counterpoint: Black Culture in the Eighteenth Century Chesapeake and Lowcountry were judged the finest monographs in a field of more than 80 entries addressing topics that ranged from slavery in colonial South Carolina to child slavery in modern South Asia. The Douglass Prize includes a $25,000 award, split between the two authors.

The winning books, both on pre-19th century slavery, "demonstrate a new maturity in the study of slavery," said David Brion Davis, the center's director. "Both of these monumental studies describe . . . a critical period largely ignored in recent years." Berlin's book discusses the first two centuries of slavery throughout North America, touching on such themes as master-slave relationships and slave culture. Morgan's study, with a narrower focus of both time and place, is no less rich in its detail of slave life, including labor patterns, family structures, and cultural practices. Together, the two authors "flesh out the long and important history of slavery in America before the creation of the United States, and help lay to rest the myth that slavery was not an essential factor in our nation's development," said Davis.

Morgan, whose book has won multiple awards, including the AHA's Albert J. Beveridge and Wesley-Logan prizes, lauded other authors who competed for the Douglass Prize and the Gilder Lehrman Center for its efforts to advance and recognize new scholarship in the field. "Because 1998 saw the publication of an unprecedented number of works on slavery and antislavery, I am deeply honored that the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition chose to make my book co- winner of the first Frederick Douglass Prize," he said. "I believe that slavery was no curious abnormality, no aberration, no marginal feature of early America but rather was central to the early modern Atlantic world. To have a research center devoted to the subject, disseminating knowledge to students, scholars, and members of the public, is wondrous; and for the center to award this handsome prize, which will encourage and promote study of an evil institution at the core of the American experience, is an extraordinarily generous act."

"The Frederick Douglass award is an extraordinary honor, and I am most pleased to be among the first recipients," said Berlin. "The award itself represents not simply a validation of the significance of the subject within the scholarly community, but also—and perhaps even more importantly—a recognition of the significance of slavery in shaping American society (indeed, the modern world) by the larger public. It comes at a critical moment for American race relations, and suggests the way history—particularly the history of slavery—has become a surrogate language for Americans, white and black, to talk with each other about race. I am hopeful that Many Thousands Gone broadens that discussion as it deepens knowledge of the slave experience.”

The four runners-up in the competition—Julie Roy Jeffery (The Great Silent Army of Abolitionism: Ordinary Women in the Antislavery Movement); Robert Olwell (Masters, Slaves and Subjects: The Culture of Power in the South Carolina Low Country, 1740–1790); Amy Dru Stanley (From Bondage to Contract: Wage Labor, Marriage, and the Market in the Age of Slave Emancipation); and Shane White and Graham White (Stylin': African American Expressive Culture from its Beginnings to the Zoot Suit)—each received a cash award from the center. Commending the runners-up, Davis observed that any of the books cited could have qualified for the grand prize had they not appeared in the same year as Berlin’s and Morgan’s studies.

The Gilder Lehrman Center was created in 1998 through a donation from the Gilder Lehrman Institute for American History. Under Davis's direction, it works to promote the study of the Atlantic salve system, including resistance, abolitionist movements, and the eventual outlawing of chattel slavery. For more information on the center, which is housed at the Yale Center for International and Area Studies, see its web page at

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