​J. Brent Morris, Ph.D

I am always working on several new projects at any given time. Below you will find a list of some of my most recent and current projects.

Oberlin, Hotbed of Abolitionism: College, Community, and the Fight for Freedom and Equality in Antebellum America (UNC Press, 2014)

My first book, Oberlin, Hotbed of Abolitionism: College, Community, and the Fight for Freedom and Equality in Antebellum America was published to warm reviews in August 2014 by the University of North Carolina Press. It is the first book to explore the role of Oberlin—the college and community—in ending slavery and achieving social equality for men and women of all races. Though contemporaries and historians alike had embraced Oberlin as a potent symbol of abolitionist radicalism, religious zeal, racial egalitarianism, and social reform, my book is the first to thoroughly examine and analyzed the substance behind this powerful icon of the abolitionist movement, especially the important role played by African Americans in its development. My research not only substantiates much of Oberlin's antebellum reputation, but also establishes Oberlin—the community, faculty, students, and alumni—as comprising the core of the antislavery movement in the West and as one of the most influential and successful groups of abolitionists in antebellum America.

From its beginning, Oberlin Institute and the community supported a cadre of activist missionaries who helped spur the abolitionist movement to its greatest periods of growth, and assisted in the breaking down of racial barriers in an exceedingly intolerant region. My concentration on Oberlin abolitionists shifts the focus of antislavery activism from East to West, with the latter becoming the movement’s nerve center by the late 1840s. Moreover, my I show that the dynamic Western African American influence, rather than the mostly-white Eastern leadership, was largely responsible for a continuous infusion of radicalism which helped the movement stay true to its most progressive fundamental principles. Besides encouraging racial heterogeneity among the intellectual leadership of the abolitionist vanguard, Oberlin was instrumental in developing diversity in antislavery thought, an aspect of the movement that most historians have not explored. Rather than falling into the distinct categories which many scholars place abolitionists, Oberlin abolitionists took the field as men and women devoted to ending slavery by any means necessary, even if that meant not adhering to ideological consistency or working through unconventional methods. Their philosophy was a composite of various schools of anti-slavery thought aimed at supporting the best hope of success. Indeed, Oberlin led the process by which Western abolitionism transformed from an isolated reform into a multiracial mass movement capable of electing a President and spurring a “revolution” that forever changed the nation.

I have been quite pleased by scholar’s responses to Oberlin, Hotbed of Abolitionism. The book has been positively reviewed by John Stauffer of Harvard University, Richard Newman of the Library Company of Philadelphia, American Historical Review, Journal of American History, Gettysburg Chronicle, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Choice Reviews, Journal of the Civil War Era, the Canadian Journal of History, CivilWarTalk.com, Publisher’s Weekly, with more expected in Fall/Winter journals. This book has been nominated for eight major prizes.

My second book, Yes Lord I Know the Road: A Documentary History of African Americans in South Carolina 1526-2008 is in production at the University of South Carolina Press (expected publication 2016). Advance reviews call it “an original scholarly work that illustrates the black Carolinian experience over the state’s long history in a thorough and innovative way,” “an absolutely sensational collection,” and “a useful teaching text.  Insofar as I know there is no comparable work on the market.”  My extended scholarly introduction represents the first comprehensive history of African Americans in the Palmetto State with heavilty annotated primary documents that are valuable resources for students and scholars of all levels.

Through the support of a Sea Islands Institute grant and in conjunction with the National Endowment for the Humanities summer institute “America’s Reconstruction: The Untold Story,” I am also editing (with Orville Vernon Burton) a peer-reviewed collection of essays to coincide with the sesquicentennial of Reconstruction titled Reconstruction at 150: Reassessing the Revolutionary New Birth of Freedom. This anthology presents innovative essays that explore new directions in Reconstruction-era scholarship, appraises the current state of the field, reassesses landmark texts, and reveals important yet little-known stories that enrich the Reconstruction narrative while suggesting new ways of thinking about larger themes. 

With my first two books published or in production and the Reconstruction anthology on schedule for completion by next summer, I have been able to make significant progress on a decade old pet project of mine: a work exploring the world of the maroon (fugitive slave) communities of the Great Dismal Swamp of Virginia and North Carolina. With the help of three years of generous NEH funding and recent research fellowships, I am working to complete Dismal Freedom: The History of the Maroons of the Great Dismal Swamp (proposal under consideration at the University of North Carolina Press), the first book-length study that examines this fascinating liminal territory between slavery and freedom. In it, I undertake a close analysis of the lives of the thousands of self-emancipating men and women who made the swamp their home and sanctuary, one of the most active refuges for freedom-seekers attempting to reach the northern states or Canada, and one of America’s most unique pockets of cultural diversity. This study offers a fresh reassessment of enslaved resistance to bondage, scholars’ understanding of marronage in North America, and the uses of cutting edge technology and interdisciplinarity in historical scholarship. My project has benefited from the collaborative efforts of the Great Dismal Swamp Landscape Study, an NEH-funded historical archaeology research project for which I am historian and principle writer. Our group has generated one of the largest datasets on marginalized communities in North America and the most detailed and expansive body of materials related to maroon communities currently available. I am also delighted to be working in partnership with the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in developing a Dismal Swamp maroon exhibit as one of the NMAAHC’s permanent displays when it opens in 2016.

I have received (as sole PI or part of a research group) over $422,000 in competitive grants and fellowships in the last four years for various scholarly projects. Indeed, much of my scholarly effort the past year went towards my ultimately-successful proposal to the National Endowment for the Humanities for $200,000 to organize a three week summer institute on the topic of Reconstruction and the Civil War era in Beaufort and the South Carolina Lowcountry. This grant is eligible to be repeated yearly beginning in 2017. I currently have proposals in development for over $300,000 in grant funds for 2016-2017.

Besides five articles under revision for submission to major journals or anthologies ("The Path of the Orator: Frederick Douglass, Antislavery, and the Columbian Orator,” “A perversion of the ballot boxes’: The South Carolina ‘Dual House’ of 1876-1877 and the End of Federal Reconstruction,” “Reconstruction, the Sea Islands, and the Birth of Universal Public Education in America,” “The Dog that Barked and the One that Did Not: Black Rebellion and White Reaction in South Carolina, 1821-1823,” and “Charles Grandison Finney: Radical Abolitionist”), I have published two major peer-reviewed journal articles. The first, exploring the intellectual history abolitionism in the western United States, was published in Civil War History. The second, a study of the life of Lowcountry planter-turned-abolitionist W.H. Brisbane, was published in the highly selective South Carolina Historical Magazine and awarded the SC Historical Association's Malcolm C. Clark award for best article appearing in SCHM that year (2010). I have also published (or had accepted for publication in upcoming volumes) five chapters in edited collections/anthologies (please see cv). My other publications include a New York Times opinion piece, 4 encyclopedia articles (plus another five accepted for an encyclopedia project ultimately discontinued by the publisher), and a feature article in the Oberlin Alumni Magazine. I have presented 22 papers at scholarly conferences or colloquiums (as well as three upcoming at the American Historical Association, the Organization of American Historians, and the Carolina Lowcountry and Atlantic World Program (CLAW)), and have consulted and contributed to six documentary film projects (two currently in development).