By Published: May 3, 2023

Scholar to use award to finish book project on how African Americans have retained Black Civil War memories

Ashleigh Lawrence-Sanders, a University of Colorado Boulder assistant professor of African American and U.S. history, has won a prestigious fellowship from the American Council of Learned Societies. She was one of 60 early career scholars selected for the fellowship through a multi-stage peer review from a pool of nearly 1,200 applicants for 2023, according to ACLS.

“ACLS is proud to support this diverse cohort of emerging scholars as they work to increase understanding of our connected human histories, cultures and experiences,” ACLS President Joy Connolly said in a prepared statement. “ACLS fellowships are investments in an inclusive future where scholars are free to pursue rigorous, unflinching humanistic research.”

Image of Ashley

At the top of the page: Civil 29th Regiment, Connecticut Volunteers, U.S. Colored Troops, in formation near Beaufort, S.C., where Cooley lived and worked. It was Connecticut’s first African American regiment. Library of Congress Above: Ashleigh Lawrence-Sanders received her B.A. from Wake Forest University, her M.A. from Columbia University and her Ph.D. from Rutgers University. 

Formed in 1919, ACLS is a nonprofit federation of 70 scholarly organizations and serves as the preeminent representative of American scholarships in the humanities and related social sciences. The ACLS Fellowship program is funded in part by contributions from the Mellon Foundation, the Arcadia Charitable Trust and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

For 2023, ACLS has set aside $3.8 million in research support for the fellows, with fellowships ranging from $30,000 to $60,000 to support the scholars during six to 12 months of sustained research and writing. Awardees who do not hold tenure-track faculty appointments—accounting for half of the 2023 cohort—also receive an additional $7,500 stipend for research or other personal costs incurred during their award term. 

“I was very surprised and very happy to learn I was selected,” Lawrence-Sanders said of winning the fellowship. “For humanities scholars, it’s one of the more prestigious fellowships you can receive and there are only 60 people selected from the whole country. It was a good feeling.”

Lawrence-Sanders said the fellowship will allow her to take leave during the next academic year to take some research trips and spend time finishing her manuscript, which is an expansion of her PhD dissertation on African American memory of the Civil War.

Lawrence-Sanders recently fielded five questions about her fellowship, her book project, her love of history, why she believes studying history is so important, and a bit about what she says is the best thing about being a professor on the CU Boulder campus. 

Question: The ACLS fellowship will allow you to work toward completing your book on African America memory of the Civil War. What prompted you to pursue that topic?

Lawrence-Sanders: What really prompted me—even before I went into graduate school—was that I really loved history. Part of it is a personal story. I’m from South Carolina originally, where the Civil War started, where the first shot was fired, etc. 

But it’s also a place where there’s a lot of Black Civil War memory. It’s a place where the 54th Massachusetts Regiment fought at Fort Wagner, as memorialized in the film Glory. This is a place where Harriet Tubman came to Beaufort, S.C., and led the Combahee River Raid with Union troops and helped free hundreds of enslaved people. There’s a lot of rich black Civil War history and memory that’s really deep in the state … but growing up you didn’t see that. Instead, you saw the Confederate battle flag and Confederate monuments. 

I was really interested in the ways that African Americans have maintained—even in the face of a very powerful Lost Cause movement—utilized their own forms of memory themselves. 

I really wanted to write a book that focused solely on Black memory of the war, and to think about the uses of it: how it’s been used as an instrument, how it’s functioned, how it’s been political, etc., throughout time.

When I wrote my dissertation in graduate school, it only went up to 1965. That was mostly a practical matter, because I just wanted to finish my dissertation (laughs). But, in complimentary comments my (dissertation) committee insisted that when I wrote the book, I would have to extend it past 1965, which was always was my intent. 

Now I can write up to the near present, which has been a very fascinating time, because when I was in graduate school the Emanuel Church massacre (of nine black parishioners by a white supremacist) happened … and after that the Confederate flag came down in South Carolina and Confederate monuments started coming down. 

So, now a whole new era history is happening while I finished my dissertation and now book. I realized there could be more written about Black memory of the war, and that there was a space for me to write about it.

Question: Did you always want to be a history professor?

Lawrence-Sanders: When I was young, I loved history. I grew up around a lot of Black history in my life. … I was even a Black history quiz bowl champion with my cousins for two years in a row; I still have the high school newspaper pictures to prove it (laughs). I was really interested in history, but I never felt really connected to the history that I learned in the classroom. It was a different time, and it was in South Carolina, but it never quite matched the robust Black history I received from my family and community.

I was not a history major in undergrad. At college, the classes that really stuck with me were my political science and international studies classes, because I loved political theory and political science. So, that’s what I majored in in college.

After, I got my master’s in human rights studies at Columbia. In that program, I again got really interested in Black history because I read a book in one of my classes, Carol Anderson’s Eyes Off the Prize, which was about the Black fight to get human rights before the United Nations in the early years of the United Nations’ existence. In the end, after working for several years, I decided to apply to history PhD programs having only taken one undergraduate history class. I always tell my history major students that they have taken more undergrad history classes than I have (laughs). So, I did not take a traditional path to a PhD in history and I never thought I would be a professor. 

Question: If a group of first-year students asked you why it's important to study history—and the history of the Civil War in particular—what would you say?

Lawrence-Sanders: I always say, ‘Because you want know how we got here.’ … Anything you want to know about what’s happening now—the answer is history. That’s the broad answer about why history is important. 

The other thing I say, specifically about the Civil War, is this is one of the United States’ young nation moments. It (the Civil War) wasn’t necessarily inevitable, but it was fought because the founding fathers continued to kick the issue of slavery down the road. 

It’s important to understand why this nation, in this tragic moment in U.S. history, must grapple with its failures. It must solve the problem that’s existed since its founding, which is the American paradox articulated by the historian Edmund Morgan—that it’s a nation founded on the concept of “freedom” while enslaving at that its founding hundreds of thousands of Black people."

It could have been solved definitively when the nation was founded; Instead, there is a buildup over the first half of the 19th century—the compromises, all of the laws dictating slavery’s expansion as the nation expands Westward, and everything around the issue of slavery just kept getting more and more violent (including in the halls of Congress itself). 

It’s important to understand why this nation, in this tragic moment in U.S. history, must grapple with its failures. It must solve the problem that’s existed since its founding, which is the American paradox articulated by the historian Edmund Morgan—that it’s a nation founded on the concept of “freedom” while enslaving at that its founding hundreds of thousands of Black people.

It’s an important time in U.S. history. It’s one of the most important times; this is a crucial moment where again the U.S. decides what kind of country it’s going to be. After the Civil War, the U.S. emerges as a changed nation, 4 million people are now free and are now citizens … but it does not solve the fundamental issue of what to do with these now ‘free’ people, which for Black Americans sets the tone for what happens in the next hundred-plus years, and what kind of country it wants to be with people who are not fully free. So, I always tell my students that the Civil War is important to understand on its own as a military and political conflict but also for what it reveals also about the country before and after the War. 

Question: What’s the best thing about being a professor at CU Boulder?

Lawrence-Sanders: I’ve had great experiences with my students. This is my fourth semester teaching here and every semester I’ve had great classes of students and I keep in contact with some of them, which has been very nice. 

Students often tell me at the end of my class how much they’ve appreciated learning the things that they weren’t able to learn in high school. I love hearing that. I’m excited to teach them things they don’t know or expand on their knowledge. …

I think some students fear taking history and they shouldn’t. I’ve had students take my class and are worried that they don’t know anything about African American history, or they don’t have a history background. Some are worried about taking an upper-level course in history. I always tell students the first week that I do not expect any level of expertise in my courses; I just expect students to come in ready to be engaged learners.

The other thing I like about CU is being in a great department around so many faculty who model how to be both great teachers and r researchers. There are several people in the department who have won this fellowship before and many other prestigious fellowships as well. We have a collegial atmosphere, too, that I think is really conducive to producing great scholarship.

And it is just gorgeous on campus.

Question: Is there anything else you would want to let people know about your upcoming book?

Lawrence-Sanders: Only that I hope that it becomes a book that helps people understand why the Civil War is such an enduring part of Black Americans’ lives.

I think that we do understand quite a bit of why it’s so enduring in white Southerners’ lives, but I think we don’t quite get as much into why, for Black Americans, there’s elements of the Civil War that have endured, because it’s not as well highlighted in mainstream culture or history the way it should be.

The history I write is both a narrative of the ways Black memory has been used as a political instrument throughout Black freedom struggles as well and how important it was for various groups of Black people over time to assert what they would claim was “Black Civil War memory.” But while doing so, they have an additional burden many memory workers do not have, they also must counter the Lost Cause (or white Southerners’ dominant memory).

By the time we get to the 2020s, Confederate monuments are coming down rapidly, but it’s not a spontaneous thing. It’s the result of a very long history of Black counter-memory of the war manifesting in the public sphere.  I hope my book can explain, at least partly, how we got to that moment.