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After the Underground Railroad: African Americans Returning from Canada and the Forgotten History of Transnational Reconstruction

CIS Seminar Series

CIS hosts a seminar with Adam Arenson, Assistant Professor of History from University of Texas-El Paso.

This seminar is co-sponsored by the USC Department of History, the USC Department of American Studies & Ethnicity, and the USC Department of Anthropology. 


Canada has been understood as a Promised Land for escaping slaves. Yet after the Emancipation Proclamation, many African Americans returned to the United States—and many went back to the South, following family ties, eager to join the fight against slavery and the struggle for racial equality. Using U.S. and Canadian Census records, pension files, newspaper clippings and the occasional autobiography or papers collection, this study recovers their story. It argues that their time in Canada gave African Americans the power of comparison: When struggling for access to social and political participation in the United States, they had a reference point for formulating notions of freedom after slavery. This project places African American political actions and cultural arguments within a transnational, hemispheric context. It pieces together the meaning of the U.S.-Canada border to African Americans during the Civil War and Reconstruction, after the era of the fugitive slaves.


Adam Arenson researches, writes, and teaches the history and memory of nineteenth-century North America, investigating the cultural and political history of slavery, Civil War, and Reconstruction, and tracing the development of American cities. He ranges widely in the American West and its borderlands – from California to the Yukon Territory, from the province of Ontario to St. Louis to El Paso – and he places the experience of European settlement in the region into comparative perspective, from first encounters to lasting legacies.

His award-winning first book, The Great Heart of the Republic: St. Louis and the Cultural Civil War (Harvard University Press, 2011) re-narrates the entire Civil War Era (1848 to 1877), describing the conflict between three regions -- West as well as North and South -- working to determine how slavery and westward expansion would shape the United States, from battlefields and politics to paintings, university debates, and public memorials.

Arenson is currently researching two new research projects: After the Underground Railroad considers the return of African Americans from Canada during and after the Civil War, while Privately Sponsored Public History investigates the history- and family-minded art and architecture commissioned from the Millard Sheets Studio for Howard Ahmanson's Home Savings and Loan banks, and what this artwork means to its communities to this day. 

Arenson also recently released a co-edited volume Frontier Cities: Encounters at the Crossroads of Empire (Penn, 2012), which considers the origins and structure of European-settled cities in North America and beyond. He is also currently coordinating and co-curating joint symposia, an edited volume, and a museum exhibit on How the American West Changed the Civil War, with the sponsorship of SMU's Clements Center and the Autry Museum.

When not on campus, I live with my family in Los Angeles, where I am co-coordinator for Past Tense, the seminar on innovative history writing at the Huntington Library, sponsored by the Huntington-USC Early Modern Studies Institute and Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West. Listen to recent sessions via podcasts here.