Office of the Vice President for Global Communications

Monday, February 13, 2012

Expert historian to discuss slavery in Henry Russel Lecture

What makes someone a slave? Does it mean treating people as property and selling them at will — a common practice in the 18th and 19th centuries — or confiscating a young girl’s passport in a foreign country in 1998 and forcing her to work as an unpaid nanny?

Rebecca Scott, the Charles Gibson Distinguished University Professor of History in LSA, professor of law, and an expert on the intersection of law and history in the study of slavery and emancipation, will examine this question at 4 p.m. Feb. 23, when she delivers the Henry Russel Lecture in the Rackham Amphitheatre. The free public lecture titled “Under Color of Law: Contemporary Slavery and the Uses of History” is followed by a reception.


Rebecca Scott


More information

The Henry Russel Lecture was named after a successful attorney and alumnus. Click here to learn more.

The Henry Russel Lectureship, established in 1925, is awarded each year to a U-M professor in recognition of exceptional achievements in research, scholarship and/or creative endeavors, and an outstanding record of teaching, mentoring and service. It is one of the university’s highest honors for a senior member of its active faculty.

In addition three faculty researchers also will receive the Henry Russel Award, one of the highest honors the university bestows upon junior faculty. They are:

• Lada Adamic, associate professor, School of Information; assistant professor of electrical engineering and computer science, College of Engineering; and associate professor of complex systems, Center for the Study of Complex Studies, LSA.

• Aaron Pierce, assistant professor of physics, LSA.

• Haoxing Xu, assistant professor of molecular, cellular and developmental biology, LSA.

The honorees are selected by the Russel Awards Faculty Advisory Committee, chaired by Janet Weiss, dean of the Horace Rackham School of Graduate Studies.

In her lecture, Scott will examine the concept of slavery through the stories of two women who lived in different countries, more than 200 years apart.

Adelaide Metayer, who in 1810 lived as a free woman in New Orleans, waged a successful battle against a man who seized her and her children to satisfy a debt owed to him by her former master.

Iwa-Akofa Siliadin was brought from Togo to Paris in 1998 by a family friend to go to school there. The acquaintance loaned her instead to a wealthy couple who confiscated her passport, forced her to work with no pay and threatened her if she went to police. After a protracted legal battle she convinced the European Court of Human Rights that her treatment constituted “servitude,” though not slavery.

“Each of these two stories has a complex history with appeals and reversals,” Scott says. “But what may be most important is to see the broad outline of how the courts responded to their arguments and status. Then we may be able to interpret what it means to be a slave in a modern world, where ownership of one person by another is no longer legal.”

Scott is the author of numerous publications on slavery, and on race and the law, in post-emancipation Cuba, Brazil and the United States, including her groundbreaking first book “Slave Emancipation in Cuba: The Transition to Free Labor” (1987).

She also co-organized a collaborative international research and teaching project, “The Law in Slavery and Freedom,” which involves scholars from Michigan and from other universities in the United States, Latin America, Africa and Europe.

Her accomplishments have been acknowledged with numerous awards and honors. U-M honored Scott with a Arther F. Thurnau Professorship in 1994 and a John H. D’Arms Faculty Award for Distinguished Graduate Mentoring in the Humanities in 2011.

Her latest book “Freedom Papers: An Atlantic Odyssey in the Age of Emancipation” (Harvard University Press), written with Jean M. Hébrard from the École des Hautes Études in Paris, was released this month. It recounts the history of several generations of one family, starting with the captivity in West Africa of a woman named Rosalie. It follows her enslavement in the French West Indies to her emancipation during the Haitian Revolution and continues into the 20th century, with the story of her great-great-granddaughter Marie-José Tinchant’s participation in the resistance to the Nazi occupation of Belgium.

Scott earned a Bachelor of Arts from Radcliffe College (1971), a Master of Philosophy in economic history from the London School of Economics (1973) and doctorate in history from Princeton University (1982). She joined U-M in 1984 as an assistant professor in the Department of History and later was promoted to associate professor, then professor. She was named a professor of law in 2002.