Northwestern prof selected as a MacArthur ‘genius grant’ recipient

Paulina Firozi, Campus Editor

Northwestern Prof. Dylan Penningroth is one of 23 people who have been awarded a 2012 MacArthur Foundation “genius grant.”

The $500,000 grant, distributed annually in $100,000 awards, has now been given to 873 people since 1981, when the program started.

The MacArthur fellowship was awarded to Penningroth for his research, which defies historical assumptions and shows that slaves did in fact own property.

Penningroth, an African American History professor, told the Associated Press he will use the grant money to continue searching for court records of slave-owned property that existed in the Civil War South.

“This grant will make it possible for me to think big, to be more ambitious about the time period I cover and the questions I’m trying to answer, like, what’s the connection to the modern civil rights era?” Penningroth said.

In 2003, Penningroth wrote a book, “The Claims of Kinfolk,” that discussed the unique circumstance of slaves owning property such as corn and cows. Now, he is examining the families of freed slaves and how they were able to achieve property-owning status and legal recognition.

“In my current work, I’m looking at freed slaves’ children and grandchildren and how they managed to carve out space within the legal system to pursue their own interests,” he told the Chicago Tribune. “They took an incredibly oppressive legal system — this is Jim Crow era, when (African-Americans) couldn’t drink at the same drinking fountains as whites, when sheriffs looked the other way when people came to lynch them — and they found ways to use the law, rather than to get used by the law.”

According to Chicago Tribune columnist Howard Reich, the MacArthur Foundation noted that Penningroth’s overall contribution highlighted important connections between families with slaves.

“By compiling evidence from vast and widely scattered archives,” Reich wrote, “Penningroth is painting a more vivid picture of relationships between parents and children, husbands and wives, and illuminating the ways communities of slaves and their descendants recognized what belonged to whom.”

— Paulina Firozi