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Carol Wilson

Arthur A. and Elizabeth R. Knapp Professor of American History

B.A., University of Delaware, 1984

M.A., University of Akron, 1986

Ph.D., West Virginia University, 1991


As a specialist in early national and antebellum African-American history, my work has centered around the boundaries of racial identity and status. We have tended to think of such categories as “free” and “slave,” “white” and “black,” as definite, but in reality they were not. My first book focused on the kidnapping of free blacks. What I found was that the designation “free” was a tenuous one at best. Free blacks were subject to so many restrictions as to render their freedom categorically different from what whites experienced; this has been well-documented by numerous scholars. Even that restricted freedom was in constant danger of being rescinded. When white people claimed even legally free blacks as slaves, the burden of proof fell upon the victim, and the entire system worked toward the retention of an individual in slavery.

My book on the case of Sally Miller looks at a similar issue of status. As a society we have begun openly acknowledging that many people in the United States are of mixed racial background. There is an assumption that this is the result of relaxing of racial barriers over the last few decades, however, racial mixing was extensive in our nation’s past, albeit a practice usually illegal and denied. Because of the common existence of enslaved mulattoes, antebellum Americans were not unused to seeing slaves who looked “white.” With racial identity a feature imposed by those in power in society, and because white status was often impossible to prove, it was perhaps only a matter of time before some whites (people of European ancestry) found themselves illegally enslaved. On the other hand, opportunistic white-looking slaves could use the system to escape from bondage.  

  • African-American History
  • American Women’s History
  • Victorian America
  • South African History
  • Historical Method
  • U.S. History Survey 
Professional Experience

Prof. Wilson was featured on the PBS program “History Detectives” in an episode on Patty Cannon, a Delaware kidnapper of free blacks. (PBS History Detectives) In 2012, she worked as a consultant for an episode of the NBC series “Who Do You Think You Are?” in which actor Blair Underwood explored his ancestry. Most recently, she served as a consultant for the film “Twelve Years a Slave,” about the story of a free black man, Solomon Northup, who was kidnapped into slavery. In October 2013, Professor Wilson was interviewed by National Public Radio on the subject of Solomon Northup.