Michigan Law’s Program in Race, Law, and History announced its 2023–2024 fellows earlier this fall, welcoming three students from the Law School and two doctoral students from U-M’s College of Literature, Science, and the Arts (see the sidebar, below). Each student will spend the remainder of the academic year researching a paper that examines the power of race in the historical arc of American law.
“One of the fellows’ takeaways is that their understanding of the relationship between race and law in American history is deepened and nuanced and more complex than when they started the project,” said Emily Prifogle, an assistant professor of law who co-directs the program with Professor Samuel Erman, ’07, and William Novak, the Charles F. and Edith J. Clyne Professor of Law.
The Program in Race, Law, and History, which has awarded fellowships since 2012, was founded by Rebecca Scott, the Charles Gibson Distinguished University Professor of History and Professor of Law, and Martha Jones, then-professor of history at U-M. Its work is grounded in scholarship that has established race as being at the core of interpreting the history of the Americas.
Prifogle said that there are many lenses through which to view legal history—including gender and class. But race is central for many legal historians who interpret the history of law in the United States, she added, citing Native land dispossession and slavery as just two examples.
“We can't understand American legal history without centering race as the lens through which we see that history.”
We can't understand American legal history without centering race as the lens through which we see that history.
The fellowship is open to U-M students across disciplines who are working toward a terminal degree, such as a JD, a PhD, or an MBA.
“We have graduate students working on topics of race, law, and history who know how to do archival history work but might not know how to do legal research,” said Prifogle. “And then we have law students who are really interested in doing research around race and the law but don’t know how to do historical, archival research. We shepherd them all through a research project.”
During the 2022–2023 academic year, fellows’ research included racialized criminal enforcement in colonial New York City, federal policy toward Indigenous peoples displaced from the Marshall Islands, and racially disparate treatment of entrepreneurial failures in bankruptcy law. Their work culminated in a seminar led by University of Chicago Professor Jim Sparrow, who provided feedback that the fellows used to revise their work for publication. In May 2024, Duke University Professor Tim Lovelace will serve as the outside commentator for the seminar.
Research proposal: “From Plessy to Korematsu: Michigan’s Influence on the Supreme Court’s Racial Jurisprudence”
Research proposal: “Judicial Power and Black Resistance: A Community History of Racially Restrictive Covenants in Ypsilanti, Michigan”
PhD candidate, sociology
Research proposal: “Unmasking Racism: Exploring the Impact of Law and Politics on Perceptions of Blackness and Black Immigrants in the United States”
Research proposal: “Violence, Interrupted: Policing Race and Intimate Partner Violence in Oakland, 1890–1910”
PhD candidate, sociology
Research proposal: “‘The Moral Quality of the Race’ : Racializing Morality in the Implementation of 20th Century U.S. Sterilization Laws”
Seeing law interact with race and history
Kate Markey, ’21, centered her research on efforts to criminalize interracial relationships in Chicago during the Progressive Era of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, despite the legality of interracial marriage.
“One of the things that my project revealed to me is that you can look at what the law says, and then you can look at how the law is actually applied,” said Markey, a fellow during her 3L year. “Thinking about the way the law interacts with race and history was a way for me to zoom out from the doctrinal classes that I took and think about the context of a case.”
While she did a clerkship on the Michigan Supreme Court following graduation from the Law School, her fellowship inspired her to pursue studies in legal history. She is currently in her first year of a PhD program in history at the University. She used her fellowship paper, which was published in Law & Social Inquiry, as a writing sample in applying to graduate schools.
Unlike Markey, Allie Goodman did not have a background in the law when she was a fellow during the 2019–2020 academic year. But she had started a PhD program in history in 2018 with the intent of becoming a legal historian and working with the community of legal historians at U-M.
While her dissertation focuses on incarcerated youth during the Progressive Era, her fellowship paper—based on her coursework with Professor Rebecca Scott—focused on the 1850s and 1860s; however, she plans to incorporate the paper into the prologue of her dissertation.
“One of the structural impediments to being a legal historian is that there are not always formal pathways between a humanities school and a law school,” Goodman said. “One of the things that I think was really wonderful about this program is that I had access to the Law School, to its faculty, to its law libraries, to its other resources that I wouldn't have otherwise had, which make doing legal history a whole lot easier.”