William McCormack, Contributing Photographer

In a virtual award ceremony held Thursday, Frederick Douglass Book Prize recipients Vincent Brown and Marjoleine Kars underscored the importance of slavery studies in historical education programs. 

Each year, Yale’s Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance and Abolition awards the Frederick Douglass Book Prize. The award, which comes with a $25,000 prize, is given to the best book in English published on the subjects of slavery, resistance or abolition, according to the award’s website. This year’s two winners were selected from a pool of 81 recommended books. 

The virtual award ceremony, held on Feb. 17, focused on the need to ensure that education on slavery is an integral component of history classes throughout the world. Normally hosted in person in Trinity Church on Wall Street, the virtual ceremony featured a livestream from the Church by Pastor Phil Jackson, a presentation of awards by Yale Sterling Professor of American History David Blight and speeches by the award winners. 

“We now face a question: how or even whether we teach the history of slavery at all,” award winner Vincent Brown said at the ceremony. “Let teachers teach, let writers write, let my people go. Scholars of slavery are my people. They free our minds.” 

Vincent Brown serves as the Charles Warren Professor of American History as well as a professor of African American studies at Harvard University. Marjoleine Kars teaches classes in early American history, women’s history and Atlantic history at the University of Maryland. Kars and Brown studied together in the same graduate program at Duke University, where they first met before being co-winners of the award. 

Brown spoke at the event and emphasized the importance of being a scholar of slavery and the obligation to teach slavery as a foundational part of historical curriculums.

The Frederick Douglass award is selected by a jury, chaired this year by Joseph Reedy, a history professor at Howard University. Other jury members included Marleen Doe from the University of Virginia and Matt Hopper from California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo. 

The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History is the overarching organization of which the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance and Abolition is a part of. Daniella Müling, the book prize manager at the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, told the News that the Institute “provides both financial and administrative support for the award process.”

In their acceptance speeches, both Kars and Brown acknowledged the resistance to slavery studies in many educational programs. They both thanked the Gilder Lehrman Institute for its role in advocating for slavery studies. 

Marjoleine Kars referenced the ongoing attacks against critical race theory, a movement which seeks to shine light on the ways that racism is ingrained in United States social systems like education, healthcare, and criminal justice. Kars addressed the opposers of critical race theory who deem slavery education unimportant. 

“The teaching of slavery and white supremacy are under attack,” Kars said. 

The ceremony also focused on student engagement, incentivizing teachers to bring their students to the virtual event by offering a free set of the winning books to any teacher who brought more than 10 students. Jackson remarked to the audience that he loved the event because it allowed students to speak directly to authors and historians on pieces of history often disregarded. 

Traditionally, teachers and students are invited to attend the ceremony in-person. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, this year’s ceremony was held virtually, and featured a virtual question and answer session in which students asked questions to the winners. 

“K-12 teachers are always included, because it is students who ultimately matter most in our goal to make this known to the widest possible audience,” James Basker, the president of the Gilder Lehrman Institute, said at the event. “Normally hundreds of students would be sitting here with us today.”  

Blight, who presented the winners with their awards, explained that the award is the most prestigious in the field of slavery studies. Blight himself is a former winner of the Frederick Douglass book award.

“This award ensures global histories of slaverty resistance are illuminated as seminal works, ensuring the continuing scholarship of African American struggles,” Blight said. 

Blight also noted that the award is important in that it encourages historians to explore the “silences of the archives,” expanding slavery studies beyond the Atlantic region with which slavery is most commonly associated. 

Kars’ “Blood on the River” did just this, centering around the slave rebellion in the Dutch colony of Berbice, present-day Guyana, which came remarkably close to succeeding. 

“This year, a book about a little-known slave rebellion in a little-known Dutch colony won the book award. It is virtually unknown outside of the country where it took place,” Kars said at the event. 

Vincent Brown’s book “Tacky’s Revolt: The Story of an Atlantic Slave War,” zeroes in on the largest slave uprising in eighteenth-century British Atlantic history, occurring in Jamaica.  

“We study history to understand the ongoing processes that shape our world. Precisely because history never repeats itself,” said award winner Vincent Brown. “It only guides us in the scope, direction, and likelihood of the changes ahead.”

Kars said she was brought to her work out of an interest in posing the question, “Who has access to the records on slavery’s past?” The Gilder Lehrman Center itself circles around supporting that question. In his opening remarks to the ceremony, Basker pointed to the history of the Institute, which began in the 1990s when philanthropists Lewis Lehrman and Richard Gilder heard a lecture on the transatlantic slave trade given by David Brion Davis, who was a Sterling Professor of History at the University. 

“They decided that the tragic, epic story David was telling was too little known by the general public and too little taught in our schools.” Basker said at the event. “Eighteen months later, the very first assignment they gave me when I became President was to go up to Yale, and to negotiate the founding of the Gilder Lehrman Center on slavery.” 

Now, the Institute seeks to provide educational resources such as curriculums, lesson plans, essays and online exhibitions to various historical programs. The Institute is a leading non-profit organization for K-12 history education, and works to support teachers and students in leading and discovering uniquely researched and foundational concepts in the field of American history. 

The Gilder Lehrman Center has received 1,600 book nominations and awarded over half a million dollars through the Frederick Douglass Book Award program, which was first given in 1999. 

Alessia Degraeve covered student culture. She is an English major in the Saybrook College class of 2025.