Susan Eva O’Donovan

Susan Eva O’Donovan

Associate Professor

201 Mitchell
Office Hours
Call for Hours


Ph.D., University of California, San Diego, 1997

Fields of Interest

My teaching and research interests include African American history up to 1900, gender and labor, Civil War, emancipation, Reconstruction, and 19th-century US history more generally.

These interests led me initially to the Freedmen and Southern Society Project, at the University of Maryland, where I co-edited two major volumes, and developed the interpretive core of my first book, Becoming Free in the Cotton South (Harvard University Press, 2007). Recipient of the Organization of American History's James A. Rawley Prize in 2008 for the best book in the history of race, Becoming Free in the Cotton South explores the gendered dimensions of work in slavery and the ways in which those always contingent dynamics shaped black people's expectations, aspirations, and experiences in freedom.

My current project, Heard it Through the Grapevine: Slave Mobility, Information, and Power in Antebellum America, picks up on threads exposed in my earlier work by excavating and coming to know black women and men's political lives in the age of secession. It is research that calls on us to repopulate our political universe, and to reconsider the social and political origins of the Civil War. It is research that reveals the tensions that lay at the heart of a capitalist system that depended heavily on slaves. Most of all, it is research that asks of the past questions still with us today: about the impacts of new technologies of knowledge, and how politics happen.

In addition to reading, researching, and writing, I co-direct the Memphis Massacre Project, the first-ever public commemoration of any aspect of Reconstruction; I am one of the lead investigators for the British-based After Slavery: Race, Labor, and Politics in the Post-Emancipation Carolinas project; I contributor to and advocate for National History Day; and I co-edit American Nineteenth Century History, the peer-reviewed journal of the Association of British American Nineteenth Century Historians.

My research and writing have been generously supported by a number of prestigious grants, prizes, accolades, and awards including fellowships at the Program in Agrarian Studies; the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, & Abolition; and the Newberry Library. In fall 2016, the University of Memphis recognized me with a Dunavant University Professorship.

Courses taught

I teach broadly in nineteenth-century American history, with a special focus on the African American experience in slavery, Civil War, and freedom. I offer instruction in Atlantic slavery and freedom from the early colonial period through 1900, historiography, and historical methods, and I direct a graduate seminar on the scholarship of teaching and learning. Students in all my courses and at every level practice historical thinking and argumentative writing, the cornerstone skills of both discipline and democracy.

Representative publications

My publications reflect my ongoing interest in slavery and its nineteenth-century demise. Becoming Free in the Cotton South, tackles these questions head on. So too do Freedom a Documentary History of Emancipation, 1863-1867, series 3, volume 1: Land & Labor, 1865, and series 3, volume 2: Land & Labor, 1866-67. I continue to rehearse my research and thinking in anthologies and professional journals, at academic conferences, and before public audiences. Most recently, for instance, I was invited to participate in a plenary panel at the 5th Global Conference on Genocide, which was held in June 2016 at Hebrew University, Jerusalem. I also have an essay forthcoming in a collection edited by David Blight and Jim Downs in which I ask what happens to our understanding of freedom when we take slavery fully into account.

A complete list of publications, prizes, presentations, books reviewed, and courses taught can be found on my CV.