Adam McNeil is an MCEAS Consortium Dissertation Fellow and a Ph.D. candidate in Early African American Women's History at Rutgers University-New Brunswick. His dissertation is entitled "Black Tidewater Refugee Women and Family in the Age of the American Revolution." We spoke with Adam about his research interests, his career path, and the fellow historians who inspire him.
Q: How did you become interested in your dissertation topic?
Adam McNeil: What a great question! I became interested in my dissertation topic because, by the Grace of God, I read Dr. Erica Armstrong Dunbar’s 2017 book, Never Caught: The Washingtons' Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge. After finishing Never Caught on my couch, I remember sitting up and thinking, “I want to do this!” Before reading Never Caught, I thought I would continue my path toward a career as a historical interpreter with the National Park Service. After reading Never Caught, I realized I wanted to become an academic historian who studied and researched early African American women’s history in Virginia under Dr. Dunbar’s direction. After transferring from the University of Delaware to Rutgers University in the Fall of 2019, I wrote a seminar paper on Black women’s pursuit of liberty during the age of the American Revolution under the direction of the pioneering historian of Black women’s history, Dr. Deborah Gray White. This seminar paper exposed me to many of the women’s stories of resistance, resilience, love, and tragedy I have grappled with since 2019.
Q: Who is an author that you think more early Americanists should read?
Adam McNeil: This is a hard question! So many options to choose from. For my choice, I will travel down I-95 and select University of Delaware Assistant Professor of Africana Studies and History, Dr. Kathryn Benjamin Golden. Every early Americanist should read her work on Black women’s resistance, marronage, and Black social life in and around the Great Dismal Swamp. Her articles in the Journal of African American History and Slavery & Abolition, “‘Armed in the Great Swamp’: Fear, Maroon Insurrection, and the Insurgent Ecology of the Great Dismal Swamp” and “‘Very Fond of Spirituous Liquors’: Alcohol and Fugitive Black Life in the Slaveholding South,” helped me construct sections of my dissertation where enslaved women in the Dismal, like Sukey Dismal, left the swamp and joined British forces during the 1781 Virginia campaign and my broaden thinking about areas of slavery studies left to explore. I am incredibly excited to learn The University of North Carolina Press recently chose her book proposal, This Insurgent Ground: Black Women, Marronage, and Rebellion in the Great Dismal Swamp, as one of the first two books published in their new Black Women’s History series. PLEASE, read, study, and engage Professor Benjamin Golden’s work!
Q: What is something you’ve read or watched recently that other early Americanists might find interesting?
Adam McNeil: The only answer to this fascinating question is WGN America’s Underground. Underground beautifully depicted enslaved and free Black life in Macon, Georgia, the South Carolina Lowcountry, Philadelphia, and Ohio. As a result, in my opinion, the creators of Underground produced one of the best depictions of enslaved and free Black life in antebellum America. Through their television lens and storytelling, viewers see love, terror, hope, and the darkness of slavery. These qualities highlight why I am still incredibly sad Underground did not find another home after WGN America shelved the show after season two.
Q: What is the primary source you’ve most enjoyed using in your research?
Adam McNeil: The Minutes of the Board of Commissioners for Superintending Embarkations remains one of my most used sources. The minutes contain stories of two women depicted in my dissertation—Judith Jackson and Dinah Archer—who challenged slaveholders attempting to re-enslave and return them to Norfolk, Virginia. Although women accounted for thirty percent of the overall Black loyalist refugee population contained in the Book of Negroes, eight of the ten cases included women and children struggling for their perceived right to freely migrate to Nova Scotia with the British military in 1783. This source alone demonstrates the gendered nature of the Black refugee migration experience for Black women I grapple with in “Contested Liberty.” The Minutes of the Board of Commissioners for Superintending Embarkations is one of many sources I analyze in my dissertation that demonstrate why simply entering British lines did not free Black refugees from slavery. Instead, more Black women died within British lines or experienced capture and re-enslavement than those who self-emancipated during the American Revolution.
Q: What are some of the highlights of your time spent in Philadelphia as a McNeil Center fellow?
Adam McNeil: What a great question to finish my Q/A. Firstly, I love the playful banter built on sharing the same last name as the center's namesake! Secondly, friends who previously held a McNeil Center fellowship emphasized how their cohort positively shaped their fellowship experience. After one semester, I now know why they said so! Workshopping ideas and works-in-progress with my cohort has been exceptional! Learning about how their ideas developed over our short time together has been a sight to see! Thirdly, and on a more personal level, having my office is a dream come true. The COVID-19 pandemic extinguished my dream of a TA office back at Rutgers, but thank the Lord, I finally received the office I wanted to produce the bulk of my dissertation! Lastly, serving as the podcast host of Early American Conversations stands tall as one of my highlights as a McNeil Center fellow!
Adam McNeil is an MCEAS Consortium Fellow at the McNeil Center and a Ph.D. candidate at Rutgers University-New Brunswick. Read more about his dissertation on his bio page.