Kabria Baumgartner receives fellowships for book project on first African American trial lawyer in U.S.

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Kabria Baumgartner, an assistant professor of American studies who specializes in 19th century African American literature and history, has been awarded fellowships from the New England Regional Fellowship Consortium and the Massachusetts Historical Society.

“This book brings a thrilling yet neglected story to light.”

The New England Regional Fellowship Consortium provides funding for Baumgartner to spend six weeks traveling to various repositories in New Hampshire and Massachusetts to conduct archival research. She will sift through records, letters and photographs related to 19th century African American life and U.S. legal culture at institutions such as the New Hampshire Historical Society and the Boston Athenaeum.

The NEH-MHS Long-Term Fellowship from the Massachusetts Historical Society enables Baumgartner to spend the entire fall semester in residence at the Massachusetts Historical Society. There Baumgartner will continue her book project, “Robert Morris: An Advocate for Justice in the Athens of America.”

The project focuses on Morris, the first African American trial lawyer in the United States, and the often-forgotten story of his life, career and activism. Baumgartner says the book encompasses much of his life by uncovering “why Robert Morris pursued a career in law, how he defined justice and civil rights, the harrowing challenges he faced, what it meant for him to devote himself to the cause of his race, his influence on a generation of African American lawyers and his legacy today.”

Morris, born in Salem, Mass., in 1824, had the chance opportunity to study law under abolitionist Ellis Gray Loring after moving to Boston at 13 to work as a servant. He was admitted to the Massachusetts bar in 1847 and in 1851 stood trial in federal court on charges of aiding and abetting a fugitive slave rescue. Morris was later acquitted and went on to live the remainder of his life as a respected lawyer, dedicated activist and public speaker. According to Baumgartner, Morris’ story has “lots of wonderful New Hampshire connections,” like the fact that he was represented in his federal trial by John Parker Hale, a prominent New Hampshire lawyer, politician and abolitionist.

“I’m excited about this,” says Baumgartner. “It brings a thrilling yet neglected story to light.”

Baumgartner is a core faculty member in the Women’s and Gender Studies Department and a faculty affiliate in the History Department. Since joining the  UNH faculty in 2017 she has been named an Emerging Scholar by Diverse Magazine, a UNH Center for Humanities Faculty Fellow, received a grant from the National Park Service and the Organization of American Historians and published her first book, “In Pursuit of Knowledge: Black Women and Educational Activism in Antebellum America” (New York University Press, 2019).