Publication Date

May 20, 2019

Perspectives Section

In Memoriam


African American

T.K. HunterT.K. Hunter, an Atlantic, legal, and art historian, died suddenly of congestive heart failure and multi-organ damage on December 17, 2018, in New York City. She was born there on July 4, 1956, to Grace Wood Hunter, a paralegal, and Herman Meade Hunter, a mathematician.

Thea Kai Hunter began her education at Barnard College, earning her BA in biology and art history in 1978. In 1996, she earned an MA in art history from Hunter College, specializing in early American and African American painting. At Columbia University, she received another MA, in history, in 1998, and completed her PhD in 2005. Her adviser, Eric Foner, speaking at a memorial service at Columbia in January, praised her as a pioneer in the transatlantic study of American law and slavery.

Hunter’s dissertation, “Publishing Freedom, Winning Arguments: Somerset, Natural Rights and Massachusetts Freedom Cases, 1772–1836,” explored the landmark case of James Somerset in 1772, which determined that an enslaved person brought to England from the colonies could not be forced to return. Hunter established that people of African descent not only made claims to individual liberty but transformed Enlightenment principles in the process, bolstering the pursuit of freedom for African-descended people throughout the Atlantic world. She won fellowships at the University of Glasgow and the Massachusetts Historical Society, and consulted, as a graduate student, on the “Revolution” episode of the PBS series Africans in America (1999).

A beautiful writer, Hunter’s publications included “Geographies of Liberty,” in Prophets of Protest: Reconsidering the History of American Abolitionism, edited by John Stauffer and Timothy Patrick McCarthy (2006), and “Transatlantic Negotiations: Lord Mansfield, Liberty and Somerset,” in Texas Wesleyan Law Review (2007). Before her death, she was co-editing (with McCarthy, Jim Downs, and Erica Armstrong Dunbar) The Politics of History: A New Generation of American Historians Writes Back, forthcoming from Columbia University Press. As a storyteller, her mentor was the young-adult fiction writer Madeleine L’Engle. As a longtime member of L’Engle’s Manhattan writers group, Hunter wrote historical and other kinds of fiction. Her professional and personal papers are being organized for donation to the Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America, at the Radcliffe Center for Advanced Study at Harvard University.

Hunter’s last research project took her back to art history. Examining the work of contemporary artist Titus Kaphar, she considered how his paintings force a reconsideration of the versions of historical events that we take for granted. She began this research as a faculty fellow in 2017–18 at the City College of New York’s Simon H. Rifkind Center for the Humanities and the Arts. She was especially proud to be the first adjunct instructor given this honor.

As a teacher, Hunter spent most of her career as a part-time instructor. After resigning a tenure-track assistant professorship at Western Connecticut State University in 2006, during the last 12 years of her life she taught a wide variety of history and art history courses at Princeton University, Columbia, Montclair State University, the Horace Mann School, Manhattan College, Brooklyn College, the New School, and the City College of New York.

As her friend Jim Downs remembers, “Thea would always say that she had three advanced degrees, trained under one of the leading historians in the country, and enjoyed both research and teaching but could not understand why she could not get a full-time job that would have given her the chance to write her book and to pursue her other research projects.”

Hunter’s students at the New School and at City College nominated her for distinguished teaching awards. One of them wrote on a memorial website, in January after winter break, “I am devastated to learn this news today. Professor Hunter was deliciously interesting and taught with her heart and soul. She was one of the best. What wrenching news.” In addition to her many friends and students, Hunter is survived by her older brother, Dr. Eric L. Hunter, of Providence, Rhode Island.

Her friends have established a GoFundMe account to raise money for a scholarship to be created in her name:

Adrienne Monteith Petty
College of William and Mary

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