Master of Ceremonies: The World of Peter Biggs in Civil War-Era Los Angeles

Western Historical Quarterly, October 2016

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In April 1865, a group of pro-Confederate Angelenos was arrested for celebrating Abraham Lincoln’s assassination and transported to the local Union headquarters at Drum Barracks. One man stood out from the group. Identified in newspaper accounts as “Peter Biggs, a negro,” the free African American barber was, according to one memoir, placed in the charge of six Union cavalrymen and “made to foot it” some twenty miles south to Drum Barracks, with “an iron chain and ball attached to his ankle.” The ball and chain highlighted this former slave’s “uncertain position” in Civil War Los Angeles, and yet, Biggs appeared “unfazed” to passers-by. This article reconstructs the life and times of Peter Biggs, a free African American man in 1850s and 1860s Los Angeles, revealing the social and economic niche that he fashioned between the U.S.-Mexican War and the Civil War. Biggs’s little-known biography illuminates a forgotten moment in the temporal and spatial history of American racial construction.

2017 Winner of the Western Writers of America 2017 Spur Award for Best Western Short Nonfiction

No Such Thing as Stand Still: Migration and Geopolitics in African-American History

  Journal of American History, December 2015

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Challenging the notion of a static and withdrawn African American political life at the turn of the twentieth century, African-descended peoples led remarkably bold political lives in Indian Territory, and when faced with the emergence of statehood and Jim Crow segregation many refused to acquiesce and chose instead to emigrate. African American experiences in Indian Territory—exemplified by the Chief Sam movement—thus prefigure the emergence of Garveyism, the “New Negro” movement, and the Great Migration. Moreover, this moment informs not only the “firsts” of African American political life in the postemancipation era but also the “lasts” of African American experiences in Indian Country.

The Chief Sam Movement, A Century Later: Public Histories, Private Stories, and the African Diaspora with Ebony Coletu

Transition Magazine 114, July 2014

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The centennial of the 1914 Chief Sam Back-to-Africa Movement invites us to engage previously unexamined source material in Oklahoma and West Africa—especially the oral testimony and ephemera of descendants and witnesses in both places. In this essay, piecing together historic documents, testimony, and images from both sides of the Atlantic, together we point towards a more complex narrative of this little-known and less-understood emigration movement. Inspired by an uncanny revelation of our overlapping family histories, what follows is the story of our shared research endeavors and personal journeys to revitalize inquiry into this movement that in fact served as a model for what would soon become the largest black organization—Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association—in world history.

2016 Winner of the Boahen-Wilks Prize, awarded by the Ghana Studies Association. Nominated for Pushcart Prize, fall 2014

The Violence of Family Formation: Enslaved Families and Reproductive Labor in the Marketplace

Reviews in American History, June 2014

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Building upon the groundbreaking work of W. E. B. Du Bois, Carter Woodson, and Eric Williams, in recent scholarship American historians have located the marketplace in every genteel corner of the slave South: in every plantation building, court record, manicured lawn, and human body. In so doing, this generation of scholars has nearly overturned the last vestiges of both the Jim Crow–era’s paternalist vision of slave ownership as creating a benevolent “training ground” for enslaved men, women, and children, and of the assertion of more critical scholars that Southern slavery was a “feudal,” precapitalist institution. It seems only natural, then, that scholars might now return with new eyes to the classic debates over enslaved families and culture. Placing the domestic slave trade at the center of their analyses of kinship, servitude, and reproductive labor, Heather Andrea Williams and Gregory D. Smithers do just this, journeying to some of the most disturbing moments in American history. They respectively document two practices that violently shaped enslaved family formation: the separation of enslaved families by sale and the forced reproduction of enslaved labor through systemic sexual violence.