Once We Were Slaves: A Multiracial Jewish Family in Early America

Once We Were Slaves: A Multiracial Jewish Family in Early America

Laura Arnold Leibman is Professor of English and Humanities at Reed College.

Presented by the Adam Cherrick Lecture Fund and the Department of Jewish, Islamic, and Middle Eastern Studies

An obsessive genealogist and descendent of one of the most prominent Jewish families since the American Revolution, Blanche Moses firmly believed her maternal ancestors were Sephardic grandees. Yet she found herself at a dead end when it came to her grandmother's maternal line. Using family heirlooms to unlock the mystery of Moses's ancestors, Once We Were Slaves overturns the reclusive heiress's assumptions about her family history to reveal that her grandmother and great-uncle, Sarah and Isaac Brandon, actually began their lives as poor Christian slaves in Barbados. Tracing the siblings' extraordinary journey throughout the Atlantic World, Leibman examines artifacts they left behind in Barbados, Suriname, London, Philadelphia, and, finally, New York, to show how Sarah and Isaac were able to transform themselves and their lives, becoming free, wealthy, Jewish, and--at times--white. While their affluence made them unusual, their story mirrors that of the largely forgotten population of mixed African and Jewish ancestry that constituted as much as ten percent of the Jewish communities in which the siblings lived, and sheds new light on the fluidity of race--as well as on the role of religion in racial shift--in the first half of the nineteenth century.

Laura Arnold Leibman's work focuses on how material culture changes our understanding of the role of women, children, and Jews of color in the early Atlantic World. Leibman is the author of The Art of the Jewish Family: A History of Women in Early New York in Five Objects (Bard Graduate Center, 2020) which won three National Jewish Book Awards, and Messianism, Secrecy and Mysticism: A New Interpretation of Early American Jewish Life (2012), which won a Jordan Schnitzer Book Award and a National Jewish Book Award. She is known for her scholarship in Digital Humanities and regularly teaches courses in this area. She has served as the Chair of the Digital Media Committee for the Association for Jewish Studies (AJS), and the academic director of the award-winning, multimedia public television series American Passages: A Literary Survey (2003).

The Adam Cherrick Lecture Fund in Jewish Studies at Washington University was established in 1988 by Jordan and Lorraine Cherrick of St. Louis, Missouri in memory of their son. Its purpose is to advance Jewish Studies at Washington University. Since its inception, the Fund has benefited both the University community and St. Louis at large by bringing world-renowned scholars to speak on campus.