Justene Hill Edwards
Office Hours: On Leave
Field & Specialties
African American History
History of American Capitalism
Ph.D., Princeton University, 2015
M.A., Princeton University, 2010
M.A., Florida International University, 2008
B.A., Swarthmore College, 2004
My research explores the intersection of African American history, American economic history, and the history of American slavery. Specifically, I look at slavery’s influence on the evolution of African American economic life. My recently published book, Unfree Markets: The Slaves' Economy and the Rise of Capitalism in South Carolina (April 2021 on Columbia University Press, in the Columbia Series in the History of U.S. Capitalism), explores the economic lives of enslaved people, not as property or bonded laborers, but as active participants in their local economies. Unfree Markets provides the fullest account to date of the strategies that enslaved people used to create their own networks of commerce, from the colonial period to the Civil War. It confronts one of the most enduring questions in African American history and the history of American capitalism: How beneficial was capitalism to African Americans? Through examining an array of archival records, from slaveholder account books to legislative petitions, Unfree Markets shows that even though enslaved people shaped the increasingly capitalist economy of slavery, economic participation alone could not secure what bondspeople wanted most—their freedom. The time and energy that enslaved people invested in their own economic enterprises did not bring them out of slavery; instead, it kept them enslaved. Ultimately, Unfree Markets demonstrates that the vestiges of race-based economic inequality are not in the late-nineteenth or twentieth centuries, but in the period of legal slavery.
I am currently working on two book projects. My next book, The Freedman’s Bank: An Untold Story of Economic Triumph and Tragedy in Reconstruction America, chronicles the rise and fall of the Freedman’s Savings and Trust Company and its lasting influence on African American communities across the nation. I am also working on A Short History of Inequality, which will interrogate the ways in which inequality has pervaded and structured American life. Both books are under contract with W.W. Norton.
During the 2022-23 academic year, my research will be supported by a Carnegie Fellowship, funded through the Carnegie Corporation of New York. During the 2023-26 academic years, my research will be supported by a Mellon New Directions Fellowship, funded through the Mellon Foundation.
I was a Consortium Fellow at the McNeil Center for Early American Studies at the University of Pennsylvania and a Quin Morton Teaching Fellow in Princeton University’s Writing Center. My dissertation, “’Felonious Transactions: The Legal Culture and Business Practices of Slave Economies in South Carolina, 1787-1860,” was a finalist for the C. Vann Woodward Prize from the South Historical Association, a finalist for the SHEAR Dissertation Prize from the Society for Historians on the Early American Republic, and a finalist for the Herman E. Krooss Dissertation Prize from the Business History Conference. My scholarship has been supported by the Program in American Studies at Princeton University, the Center for African American Studies at Princeton University, the Program in International and Regional Studies at Princeton University, and the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Virginia.
I currently serve on the Board of Trustees of the Business History Conference and was a Trustee of the Midland School. I am also on the editorial boards of Enterprise & Society: The International Journal of Business History and The Journal of the Civil War Era.
- The Freedman’s Bank: An Untold Story of Economic Triumph and Tragedy in Reconstruction America (under contract with W.W. Norton).
- A Short History of Inequality, (under contract with W.W. Norton).
- Unfree Markets: The Slaves' Economy and the Rise of Capitalism in South Carolina (April 2021, Columbia University Press).
- "Felonious Transactions: Legal Culture and Business Practices of Slave Economies in South Carolina, 1787–1860." Enterprise & Society 18, no. 4 (2017): 772-783.
Awards & Honors
Mellon New Direction Fellowship, Mellon Foundation, 2023-26.
2022 Carnegie Fellow, Carnegie Corporation of New York.
Finalist, SHEAR Dissertation Prize, Society for Historians of the Early American Republic.
Finalist, Herman E. Krooss Prize for Best Dissertation in Business History, Business History Conference.
Finalist, C. Vann Woodward Dissertation Prize, Southern Historical Association.
HIUS 1501: American Slavery and the Law
HIUS 1501: Inequality in America
HIUS 3651: African American History to 1865
HIUS 2059: American Slavery
HIUS 4501: Capitalism and Slavery
Internet and Popular Press Publications
"The Freedman's Bank Forum obscures the bank's real history," The Washington Post, October, 27, 2022.
"The Language of Blackness and Racial Identity in American History," The American Historian, Spring 2022.
"The Complicated Legacy of Black Patriotism," Columbia University Press Blog.
"Capitalism and the Economic Lives of Enslaved People," Columbia University Press Blog.