This year’s Thurgood Marshall Fellow, Danielle Terrazas Williams, graduated this past week from Duke University. Her dissertation focuses on the lives and entrepreneurial activities of free women of African descent in Veracruz, Mexico in the seventeenth century. She is finishing up her fellowship at Dartmouth and will be moving in the fall to a post-doctoral position at Princeton University.
Terrazas Williams holds a BA in Afro-Mexican studies from Cornell University and an MA in history from Duke University. She first became interested in the history of the colonial period and in particular the experiences of those of African descent in Mexico as an undergraduate. For her the connection is also personal. Her mother is Mexican American and her father is African American.
Terrazas Williams chose to pursue graduate studies at Duke University because it is renowned for both its Latin American and Caribbean Studies Program and its Department of African and African American Studies. Her advisor, Professor Pete Sigal, a full professor and director of Graduate Studies in the History Department, has been very helpful and supportive of Terrazas Williams as she has undertaken her dissertation research, spending three years living in Mexico and examining archival documents in Xalapa, Veracruz. In particular, Terrazas Williams works with legal and notarial documents, tracing the births, marriages, purchases, sales, and deaths of wealthy free women of African descent in the region.
One of the difficult aspects of her work, explains Terrazas Williams, is reading and interpreting extremely old documents that have not always been well preserved. While the documents in the archives where she conducted her research were in relatively good condition, Terrazas Williams has run into some cases where general wear and decay, as well as insect damage, have made materials hard to work with. For example, she recounts an instance in which the age of a boy being sold away from his mother and into slavery was torn off of the corner of a document. It would have been compelling in her dissertation, observes Terrazas Williams, to have been able to include “whether the boy was four or ten when he was sold,” but she notes that this is sometimes what happens when one works with documents that are hundreds of years old.
In her dissertation, entitled Capitalizing Subjects: Free African-Descended Women of Means in Xalapa, Veracruz during the Long Seventeenth Century Terrazas Williams presents the women she studies as industrious businesspeople in contrast to a view of them as simply patrons, dependent on the men in their families. She notes that past research has not approached the lives of these sometimes wealthy women from the perspective of their entrepreneurial activities. She also explores issues of respectability and how the women she studies managed their investments and other forms of capital in ways that reflected their sense of respectability and their efforts to be respectable.
Terrazas Williams’ decision to come to Dartmouth stemmed from hearing about the positive experience of a fellow graduate of Duke University, Dr. Reena Goldthree, who is now an assistant professor of African and African-American Studies at Dartmouth. Dr. Goldthree told Terrazas Williams that the faculty in the African and African-American Studies Program at Dartmouth were very helpful and supportive during her time as a Thurgood Marshall fellow. “I have found that to be very true,” observes Terrazas Williams, noting in particular that Professor Antonio Tillis, chair of African and African-American Studies, has been especially encouraging of her work. She adds, “I knew that the faculty at Dartmouth would not only make sure that I finished my dissertation work, but also that I was well-placed in an academic position after my fellowship.”
Terrazas Williams has very much enjoyed her time at Dartmouth, commenting that it has given her a chance to work with scholars whom she admires and to complete the job application process, as well as her dissertation. In her position at Princeton, her focus will be on working to turn her dissertation into a book. She will also teach a class, possibly on race and the enlightenment.
The Graduate Studies Office wishes Terrazas Williams the best of luck as she moves onto the next step in her academic career!