Alumna Returns to Discuss Book That Began as Undergraduate Research Seminar Project

Profile image of Isabella Morales standing against a brick wall
Dr. Isabella Morales

Dr. Isabela Morales (UA Class of 2012) returned to campus on September 29th and 30th to talk about her first book, Happy Dreams of Liberty: An American Family in Slavery and Freedom (New York: OUP, 2022). Speaking to a group of fifty undergraduates, graduate students, and faculty, Dr. Morales explained how her research began in Dr. Jenny Shaw’s American Slavery Research Seminar (now HY497) during the Fall 2011 semester.

The subject of that seminar was “Slavery in the Americas” and following a visit to the W.S. Hoole Special Collections Library, Dr. Morales identified the S. D. Cabiness Papers as worth investigating. Those papers introduced her to Huntsville, Alabama cotton planter Samuel Townsend, and to the nine children to whom he left his considerable estate upon his death in 1856. More importantly, and significantly, it drew her attention to the fact that Townsend’s five sons and four daughters were also his property – their five mothers were enslaved women. Leaving his fortune to his enslaved progeny was extremely unusual for this time and place, providing Dr. Morales with an opportunity to explore the legacies of enslavement and the tenuous nature of freedom in the nineteenth century United States.

In her presentation, Dr. Morales introduced the audience to the many ways Samuel’s mixed-race sons and daughters attempted to forge lives in freedom. The younger children went to Wilberforce University in Ohio for their educations. Those who were grown headed west, homesteading in Kansas or silver mining in Colorado. One son fought for the Union Army in Mississippi. Another would return home to Alabama and purchase some of the land his former enslaver, and father, had owned. In every instance, family members tried to find communities where they could flourish, even as for some, their lives ended in tragedy.

Dr. Morales’ fascinating talk also explored how she wrote the book, how she ended up collaborating with Townsend descendants who reached out to her, and the responsibility of writing someone else’s family history.

On Friday, Dr. Morales met with graduate students in the history department to talk about her experiences working in Public History. On graduating from Princeton she worked for two years in the exhibitions department at the National September 11 Memorial & Museum in New York City. She is now part of a team developing the Stoutsburg Sourland African American Museum in central New Jersey, and she also is the Editor for the Princeton & Slavery Project, a digital humanities exhibit that examines Princeton’s ties to the institution of slavery. Over lunch she shared her tips, experiences, and advice with the group.