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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 U.S South. Generally, Welch is interested in changing understandings of what law is and who it is for. The antebellum U.S. South, in particular, offers a fruitful place for thinking broadly about who defines law and rights. Scholars often think about rights as something given or provided through nature or statute, but Welch's research shows that the history of rights is far more discontinuous; for rights are more properly imagined as things claimed through rhetoric—and often, the rhetoric of those without formal power.

Welch's 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 The book investigates unpublished and unexplored lower court records from the Natchez district of Mississippi and Louisiana between 1800 and 1860 in which free blacks and slaves sued whites and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 currently at work on two projects: a second book on free black moneylenders and a digital history project tracing kidnapping rings in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

Welch's second book project, tentatively titled The Perils of Promises, 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.  

In 2017-19, Welch will be a Mellon Faculty Fellow in the Digital Humanities at Vanderbilt. Her project, “Mapping the Other Underground Railroad,” draws on kidnapped free black people's lawsuits for freedom in the Deep South. It will utilize these trial court records to do two things: (1) 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.

Welch’s research 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. Welch's work has also appeared in the Journal of the Civil War Era, the Law and History Review, the Legal History Blog, and other venues.

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