Freeing History: Erica Armstrong Dunbar

Historian Erica Armstrong Dunbar discusses her new book "Never Caught: Ona Judge, the Washingtons, and the Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave" and the impact of the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship program.

“I’m a historian not just because I like old things. It’s because I want to translate history in order to improve the present and the future,” says Erica Armstrong Dunbar.

Erica Dunbar is considered one of the leading historians of her generation on the history of African American women, 19th century America, and Black Philadelphia. In 2017, she was appointed Charles and Mary Beard Professor of History at Rutgers University. Since 2011, she has also served as inaugural director of the program in African American history at the Library Company of Philadelphia, the nation’s oldest library, founded by Benjamin Franklin. Simon & Shuster released her second book Never Caught: Ona Judge, the Washingtons, and the Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave in February 2017. It is an account of a young enslaved woman’s escape from the Philadelphia home of the nation’s first president to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, where she created a new life and evaded capture.

Dunbar, who grew up in Philadelphia, is one of the more than 700 Mellon Mays PhDs who are not only helping to diversify university faculty in the United States, but who are also contributing groundbreaking scholarship and rising to the highest ranks in academia.

How did being a Mellon Mays Fellow impact your career trajectory?
I can honestly say had I not been a Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellow, there’s no way I would have been an academic. It was probably the single most important intervention in my life as a young adult and gave me permission to do what I love the most—reading, writing, thinking about history and, in particular, African American women’s history.

When I arrived at the University of Pennsylvania, I went with the expectation of becoming an attorney. I was going to go make some money. I always did well in history, and I thought, okay, what can I do with a history degree? Lots of my friends who were majoring in history or political science were doing so to become attorneys.

That was really my plan until I was introduced to some great professors at Penn who were involved in the Mellon Mays program and who were mentors—Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, Mary Frances Berry, Barbara Savage, Farah Griffin, Herman Beavers.

Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham said to me, Erica, you should really think about becoming an historian. I [asked] well, how do you do that? A PhD in history—you can do that? I’d never had someone in my family get the PhD. It was Mellon Mays faculty who opened doors and showed me the possibilities of academia.

What have you been doing at the Library Company of Philadelphia to mentor the next generation of scholars?
We have a huge collection of early African Americana. My position as director has allowed me to be around thinkers and people who are shaping the field of African American history. But it’s also created an opportunity for me to give back, in the way the Mellon Mays Fellowship program gave something to me.

As the director, I was able to establish the Mellon Scholars program [in 2013], which offers post-doctoral dissertation and short-term fellowships to those who are interested in early African American history. But it’s also led me to create a summer internship and workshop program, where we bring in college students and early graduate students who are thinking about going to graduate school, to introduce them to the world of researching, libraries, history and print culture—all with the hope of them joining the professoriate.

One of my main goals is to broaden the pipeline of faculty of color. At so many institutions there are so few African American, Latino faculty members, particularly in the history department.  

What do you hope the reading public and other scholars will get out of your forthcoming book about Ona Judge and George and Martha Washington?
Having worked on this eight years, my desire is really for everyone to know Ona Judge’s name. She was such a kind of incredible person, who at the age of 22 made the decision to run away from the most powerful man in the new nation, without ever looking back.

I hope that her name becomes a household name, in the way that we know of Frederick Douglass or Harriett Tubman. She predates all of them. She shows in America that resistance is possible, even in the darkest moments.

Was having a trade publisher, instead of an academic press, part of your strategy to make Ona Judge well-known?
Yes. I want my professor friends to read this book, but I also want my uncle to read this book. I want my godmother to read this book. I want people who aren’t necessarily professors or academics to read this book.

I do believe history needs to be accessible to everyone. I’m super excited to tell as many people as possible about Ona. I feel like this is Ona’s story. I am simply the vessel. I think that people will be mesmerized by her story.

This article has been updated with a video interview and Armstrong Dunbar’s new role at Rutgers University.