I was born in Central Harlem where my first playground was at the Riverton, the Black alternative to New York City’s Stuyvesant Town. By the time I was school age, we had moved to suburban Long Island where my family integrated a previously all-white enclave. My girlhood summers included stays with my paternal grandmother at her home on Bennett College’s campus in Greensboro, North Carolina. Campus life still frames my life. In 2017, I joined the faculty at Johns Hopkins University. Baltimore has long been a site for my historical research, and now it is also home. I still spend springs in Paris, France where my husband, historian Jean Hébrard, teaches at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales. In the summer we return to Long Island, out east in Greenport to a nineteenth-century farm house.
My early education prepared me for work as an activist lawyer. I received a B.A. from Hunter College in 1983 where I joined a diverse student body, worked alongside stellar researchers as a Psychology major, and discovered my passion for social justice with the city as my classroom. I earned my J.D. in 1987 from the CUNY School of Law, where our motto was “Law in the Service of Human Needs.” Among my teachers was Patricia Williams, whose work still influences me today. CUNY Law launched my career as a public interest lawyer. I worked out of community based law offices for nearly ten years, representing homeless people, people with mental illness, and women living with HIV and AIDS. In 1994, I was awarded a Charles H. Revson Fellowship on the Future of the City of New York at Columbia University for my lawyering work.
I was drawn to research and writing by Eric Foner and the late Manning Marable, whose own careers linked scholarship and social justice. I discovered my inner archive rat, learned the politics of history, and stayed at Columbia to earn a history Ph.D. in 2001. The result: I am a nineteenth century U.S. historian who focuses on law, culture, and inequality. My first book, All Bound Up Together: The Woman Question in African American Public Culture, 1830-1900, examined black debates about women’s rights, and was inspired by the women I’d met as a girl at Bennett College. I extended this work in 2015 with a co-edited volume, Toward an Intellectual History of Black Women. Today, my front-burner project is a new book, Birthright Citizens: A History of Race and Rights in Antebellum America. It is a new history of the Fourteenth Amendment, one that begins in a local courthouse, asking how black Americans constructed their legal rights through everyday proceedings. It is a historian’s tribute to the clients I represented in New York City’s poor people’s trial courts.
Today I am a writer, commentator, researcher, and historian. Writing is my first passion, from the sustained task of a book chapter to a brief thought on Twitter. You will find in all my work the coming together of race, gender, law, and history. This is certainly true in my scholarship. There is still so much to know about the African American past and I bring this to light by exploring race and legal culture. It is also true for my commentary, where I use the past to illuminate the present. I do not often endorse historical analogies, but I do think that the past offers cautionary tales for today. These days I am trying my hand at something new, creative projects that explore my family’s experience with mixed-race identity over two centuries and many generations. All of this work is possible only because I am surrounded by creative and challenging colleagues and students. To say that I teach African American history does not capture the richness of my work milieu. For me, the university is an exciting laboratory out of which my best projects emerge.
I have been fortunate to receive broad support and recognition for my work. At times, that has come in the form of research grants and writing fellowships. In 2013-14, my writing was supported by the American Council of Learned Societies and the National Humanities Center, where I was the William C. and Ida Friday Fellow. I’ve also held fellowships from the Columbia University Center for the Critical Analysis of Social Difference, the University of Pennsylvania Law School, the National Constitution Center, the Organization of American Historians, the Library Company of Philadelphia, and the Gilder-Lehrman Institute of American History. In 2010 I was selected as a Distinguished Lecturer with the Organization of Americans Historians. During my years at the University of Michigan, I was honored the Harold R. Johnson Diversity Service Award, an Arthur F. Thurnau Professorship, election to the Michigan Society of Fellows, and a 2016 appointment as a Presidential Bicentennial Professor. In June 2017, I became the SOBA (Society of Black Alumni) Presidential Professor of History at Johns Hopkins University.
In recent years, I’ve taken up national leadership. In June 2017, I will assume the co-Presidency of the Berkshire Conference of Women Historians, with my colleague Tiya Miles. We will lead the organization through its 2020 international meeting. I also serve on the Executive Board of the Organization of American Historians. My service also extends to the American Society for Legal History, where I did a term on the Board of Directors and am currently a member of the Nominating Committee, and the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic (SHEAR,) where I keep up with the latest literature through service on the book prize committee.
My greatest pleasures are friends and family. We are far-flung, living across the U.S., Europe, and Brazil. In a life often spent on the road, no journey is sweeter than that which ends sharing a meal and a long conversation with those I love.
And if you’re looking for the other Martha Jones, the character from Dr. Who, you can find her here!