George and Ann RichardsCivil War Era Center

Colored Conventions
Symposium on Free State Slavery
Symposium on Free State Slavery

Symposium on Free State Slavery

March 16, 2023

This symposium undertakes a consideration of the question of slavery in the so-called “Free States,” presenting cutting-edge scholarship by senior, mid-career, and early career scholars. Our authors cover a range of jurisdictions across the expanding United States, using a variety of methodological tools and offering a wide breadth of theoretical insights. Each paper will focus on the symposium theme of slavery and bound labor in jurisdictions that ostensibly banned the practice. Our authors probe their topics from several different angles, and the symposium as a whole reveals both the diversity in regimes and experiences of unfree labor as well as overlaps between the forms of unfreedom African and Native Americans experienced before 1865. In addition to workshops for the pre-circulated papers, this symposium will include two keynote addresses that are open to the public.

The Symposium on Free State Slavery is organized by Kellen Heniford, Richards Center Postdoctoral Scholar; Kathleen M. Brown, David Boies Professor of History at the University of Pennsylvania; and Sarah Barringer Gordon, Arlin M. Adams Professor of Constitutional Law and Professor of History at the University of Pennsylvania.

Schedule of Events

Thursday, March 16, Foster Auditorium, 102 Paterno Library

4:45pm-5:45 pm., Opening Keynote Address

  • Andrew Diemer, Towson University, “The Underground Railroad and the Struggle for the ‘Free’ State of Pennsylvania”
Friday, March 17, 102 Weaver Building 

Registration for lunch and to receive the pre-circulated papers is required by March 10. Please email Barby Singer at to register.

9:00 am-12:50 pm, Workshop Papers

9:00am-10:10am, Richard Newman, Rochester Institute of Technology, “Making and Breaking Free State Slavery in New York”

10:10am-10:20am, Break

10:20am-11:30am, Lucien Holness, Virginia Tech, “The Colonial Legacy of Western New York and Southwestern Pennsylvania in the Making of Abolition”

11:30am-11:40am, Break

11:40am-12:50pm, Sarah Barringer Gordon, University of Pennsylvania, “Unlikely Freedom: Slavery, Race, and Law in Antebellum California”

12:50-1:40pm, Lunch

1:40-4:10 pm, Workshop Papers

1:40pm-2:50pm, Mycah Conner, Penn State, “’Damnable Revelation’: Connivance, Counternarratives, and the Wartime Meaning of Free Soil Illinois”

2:50pm-3:00pm, Break

3:00pm-4:10pm, Cory James Young, University of Nebraska – Lincoln, “Hereditary Term Slavery and the Pursuit of Restitution in Antebellum Pennsylvania”

4:15-5:15 pm, Closing Keynote Address

  • Kathleen M. Brown, University of Pennsylvania, “Encumbering Liberty in the Shadow of Slavery”