University of Rochester

University of Rochester Awards Frederick Douglass Medal to Leading Historian of Race and Gender

April 14, 2010

The University of Rochester and its Frederick Douglass Institute for African and African-American Studies will award the Frederick Douglass Medal on April 16 to Deborah Gray White, the Board of Governors Professor of History at Rutgers University and a pioneering scholar in the field of African-American women's history.

"Like Douglass, Deborah Gray White has worked tirelessly to ensure that our understanding of the past includes the perspective and experiences of all people, especially those who were left out of traditional histories," said University President Joel Seligman.

White will be awarded the medal before giving the Frederick Douglass Lecture, titled "What Women Want: The Racial Paradoxes of Post-Modernity." Scheduled for 5 p.m. in the Hawkins-Carlson Room of Rush Rhees Library, the talk also serves as a keynote address for the Humanities Project conference on Rethinking Gender and Race in American History, April 16 and 17. White's talk, along with the other research presented during the conference, will be published as the inaugural book in a new series on gender and race from the University of Rochester Press.

"We are delighted to honor Professor White and her work," said conference organizer Victoria Wolcott, associate professor of history at the University. "Her seminal book on slave women's lives, published a quarter of a century ago, opened up a whole field of study for scholars and provided a fresh appreciation for the experiences of women of color," said Wolcott.

"Ar'n't I A Woman?" Female Slaves in the Plantation South (Norton) was voted by members of the Organization of American Historians in 1994 as one of the one hundred most admired American history books. Reissued in 1999, with a new introduction and chapter, the work continues to be widely read, cited, and celebrated with scholarly conferences.

Her other books include Let My People Go: African-Americans, 1804-1860 (Oxford UP, 1996) and Too Heavy a Load: Black Women in Defense of Themselves, 1894-1994 (Norton, 1999). She is currently completing work on "Can't We All Just Get Along?": American Identity at the Turn of the Millennium, a study of the Million Man March and other gatherings during the 1990s.

Along with scholarly articles, White has coauthored several textbooks, most recently American Anthem (Holt, Rinehart, Winston, 2007) with Edward L. Ayers et al. She edited and provided the introduction and a chapter to Telling Histories: Black Women Historian in the Ivory Tower (University of North Carolina Press, 2008), a project she once described as "a sort of 'how-to' survival manual for those who are currently struggling against entrenched historical methods, historiographies, and faculties … whose very bodies stand in opposition to the conventional wisdom regarding academia."

In that book, White describes her uphill battle to explore the history of slave women's lives. She recalls how her thesis proposal was initially rejected for drawing from non-traditional sources, her "objectivity" questioned because she was a black women exploring black women's history, and how publishers feared that there would be "no audience" for the book, code, she wrote, for "Nobody wants this on the historical record; black women's history is not interesting enough for people to pay for it; black women, black people don't read; nobody will believe this because it's about black women coming from a black woman."

But after three decades in the profession, she concludes there has been progress. Now, she writes: "I don't have to, and I refuse to, justify my field of inquiry … African American history, women's history and African American women's history may be ignored, even demeaned, by many. Be that as it may, I am convinced that it will never be eliminated."

Created in 2008, the Frederick Douglass medal has been awarded to four recipients: Lani Guinier, professor of law at Harvard University; Gerald Torres, professor of law at the University of Texas at Austin; David Kearns, retired CEO of Xerox Corp.; and Walter Cooper, retired research scientist at Eastman Kodak Co.

About the Frederick Douglass Institute for African and African-American Studies
Established in 1986, the Frederick Douglass Institute ( is dedicated to furthering teaching and research in the field of African and African-American Studies. The Institute offers numerous interdisciplinary courses, mostly in the social sciences and humanities, and awards an undergraduate major and minor in African and African-American Studies. A major center of multicultural academic programming at the University, the Institute organizes film and lecture series and supports pre- and post-doctoral research fellows at its campus center.