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Meet the Fellows: 2018 Newcombe Fellow Alix Riviere

The Charlotte W. Newcombe Doctoral Dissertation Fellowship fosters the original and significant study of ethical or religious values in all fields of the humanities and social sciences. The 2018 class, announced by the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, includes Alix Riviere, a doctoral candidate in history at Tulane University. Alix’s dissertation, Bittersweet Childhoods: Enslaved Youth in Nineteenth-Century Louisiana and Martinique, explores the diverse experiences of enslaved children at a time when ideas about children and their needs were changing and abolitionism was on the rise.

Alix expresses the thrill she gets exploring historical sources:

For a long time I thought being a historian was merely discussing leaders, battles, and dates. Now, I think of it as being a private investigator of the past. Being in an archive has always been an incredibly stimulating moment for me; an opportunity to put together a story with bits and pieces of paper written over a century ago. My most memorable archival experience took place in Paris in the summer of 2016, when I discovered the unopened correspondence of an estate manager in Martinique to the absentee plantation owner in France.

Every two weeks from 1841 to 1848, the manager assiduously wrote eight to twelve pages about the sales of sugar and purchases of merchandise, news of Martinican society, and, most importantly for my research, detailed descriptions of the plantations’ slave community. Though biased and certainly not privy to the intimate lives of the hundreds of enslaved people attached to the plantation, the manager heard about unhappy couples, family feuds, celebrations, and countless other happenings that took place within slave families and their communities. As a mediator between the enslaved and their far away owner, he had to listen to slaves’ needs and requests and relay discontent to their owner. Children appear in hundreds of his letters; sometimes as victims of black and white adults’ mistreatment, sometimes as central actors in a dramatic community event, but often as people trying to figure out how to navigate a world in which they were considered slaves but also treated as children. More so than secondary sources, archival documents have given me a broad understanding of the experiences of enslaved children as participants in community life, as laborers on the plantation, and as people with minds of their own whose lives are worth investigating.

For more information about the 2018 Newcombe Fellows and a list of their dissertation titles, click here.


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