Skip to main content

Kimberly Welch

Assistant Professor of History
Assistant Professor of Law

Kim Welch is a historian of the United States with a focus on slavery, race, and the law in the American South. She is particularly interested in the world of free and enslaved African Americans, how they understood their place in southern society, and how they advanced it. Understanding how those confined to positions of subordination enlarged their rights has led her to the southern courthouse. There, to a surprising degree, they staked their claim and more often than not found it confirmed.

Her first book—Black Litigants in the Antebellum American South (University of North Carolina Press, 2018)—is a historical and socio-legal study of free and enslaved African Americans’ use of the local courts in the cotton South. The book investigates unpublished and unexplored lower court records from the Natchez district of Mississippi and Louisiana between 1800 and 1860 in which free blacks and slaves sued whites and other African Americans. Although they present technical and interpretive challenges, local court records represent an important resource for understanding the relationship between legal systems and formally marginalized peoples in racially and economically stratified societies.

Welch is also the principal investigator for the National Science Foundation, Law and Social Sciences Research Grant, “Variation in Use of Courts by Legal Status and Jurisdiction,” SES 1353231 & 1700856 ($149,605). This project gathers, analyzes, and compares local court records involving black litigants in four counties in the Deep South. See:

Welch is currently at work on two new projects: a digital history project tracing kidnapping rings in the late 18th and early 19th centuries and a second book project on free black creditors.

In 2017-18, Welch will be a Mellon Faculty Fellow in the Digital Humanities at Vanderbilt. Her project, “Mapping the Other Underground Railroad,” draws on fifty kidnapped free black people's lawsuits for freedom in Natchez, Mississippi. It will utilize these trial court records to do two things: (1) use GIS software to map the kidnappers and their networks as they trafficked free people of color through the domestic slave trade and into enslavement in the Deep South; and (2) map the networks—both local and distant—that enslaved people drew upon in their lawsuits.

Her second book project, tentatively titled The Black Atlantic Economy, examines black moneylenders and their involvement in the credit economy of the early modern Atlantic World. Black lenders in Natchez, Mississippi, Baltimore, Maryland, and New Orleans, Louisiana, entered into credit relationships with whites and other people of color in places as far reaching as Paris, France, and Charleston, South Carolina. These relationships of debt and obligation speak to important issues related to the development of market capitalism and to the relations between legal regulations and developing markets more broadly.

Welch’s work has been supported by the National Science Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Newberry Library, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the American Bar Foundation, the Law and Society Association, the American Historical Association, the Southern Association for Women Historians, the Cosmos Club Foundation, the University of Maryland, West Virginia University, Vanderbilt University, the West Virginia Humanities Council, and the Dolphe Briscoe Center for American History at the University of Texas at Austin.

For more on her research, teaching, and publications, see her personal website: