SAN MARINO, Calif.—R. Isabela Morales is the winner of the 2023 Shapiro Book Prize, The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens announced today. Morales won for her 2022 monograph Happy Dreams of Liberty: An American Family in Slavery and Freedom (Oxford University Press), and the prize carries with it a $10,000 cash award. A public historian, Morales is the editor and project manager of the Princeton & Slavery Project and the digital projects manager at the Stoutsburg Sourland African American Museum in Skillman, New Jersey.
The review committee for the prize described Happy Dreams of Liberty as “beautifully written and utterly engrossing” and “a work of prodigious research.” The book follows the remarkable story of the descendants of Samuel Townsend, a wealthy plantation owner who upon his death granted emancipation to his enslaved children and nieces, leaving them with a net worth of approximately $200,000. Happy Dreams of Liberty “draws on a rich cache of letters written by the Townsend children themselves, as it chronicles their odyssey across the country in search of freedom, equality, and belonging.”
In Happy Dreams of Liberty, the committee said, the vivid and revealing account of a single family ultimately addresses much broader social concerns, as it illuminates the transformative times and multiple geographies of freedom that shaped the lives of the Townsends—whose heritage shielded them from discrimination in some parts of the West, but put them on the wrong side of the rigid racial lines that dominated the Jim Crow South.
“I have always been drawn to narrative history and family stories like that of the Townsends, and having The Huntington recognize their significance with this prize is an incredible honor,” Morales said. “As a public historian, my focus is making scholarly research accessible to broader audiences. That’s one of the reasons I’m so interested in family stories. They have a power to draw readers in and make them feel connected to the past in a deeper way. The Townsends may have lived and died more than 150 years ago, but their pursuit of social and economic mobility and their experience of racism and prejudice in the 19th century remain highly relevant today.”
Established in 2019 as a part of The Shapiro Center for American History and Culture at The Huntington, the Shapiro Book Prize is awarded biennially for an outstanding first scholarly monograph in American political, social, intellectual, or cultural history, with a focus on books that make exceptional use of primary source materials. A committee of distinguished scholars in the field selected Morales’ book from over 50 submissions from a wide range of book publishers.
As part of the prize acceptance ceremony, Morales will give a lecture at The Huntington on Wednesday, March 29, at 7:30 p.m.
The prize committee also named a runner-up: Carla Cevasco for her book, Violent Appetites: Hunger in the Early Northeast (Yale University Press, 2022). Cevasco, assistant professor of American studies at Rutgers University–New Brunswick, focuses her research on food, the body, material culture, gender, and race in early America.
To be eligible for the 2023 Shapiro Book Prize, a submission must have been made by the publisher of a monograph with a publication date between Jan. 1, 2021, and Dec. 31, 2022, and the work must have been based on original documentary research in some aspect of American history and culture, broadly defined. Information about the 2025 Shapiro Book Prize will be released in spring 2024.
2023 Shapiro Book Prize Finalists
The Huntington announced in December the six monographs short-listed for the Shapiro Book Prize:
- Carla Cevasco, Violent Appetites: Hunger in the Early Northeast, Yale University Press (2022)
- Annelise Heinz, Mahjong: A Chinese Game and the Making of Modern American Culture, Oxford University Press (2021)
- R. Isabela Morales, Happy Dreams of Liberty: An American Family in Slavery and Freedom, Oxford University Press (2022)
- Tamika Y. Nunley, At the Threshold of Liberty: Women, Slavery, and Shifting Identities in Washington, D.C., The University of North Carolina Press (2021)
- Kathryn Olivarius, Necropolis: Disease, Power, and Capitalism in the Cotton Kingdom, Harvard University Press (2022)
- Stephen Vider, The Queerness of Home: Gender, Sexuality, and the Politics of Domesticity after World War II, The University of Chicago Press (2021)
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About the Shapiro Center
The Shapiro Center for American History and Culture at The Huntington was created to advance scholarship, knowledge, and understanding of American history and culture—especially of the early republic and of the nation’s founders and leaders. It also promotes use of The Huntington’s premier library collections in this field, which are unique west of the Mississippi.
Established in 2019, thanks to the vision and generosity of L. Dennis and Susan R. Shapiro, the Shapiro Center engages both scholarly and general audiences. Its Los Angeles home offers a special opportunity to explore West Coast and global perspectives on the development of America and the genesis and evolution of national institutions.
The Huntington is one of the largest repositories of American historical materials in the nation. Extraordinary American presidential and founders papers sit within a broad humanities context that includes expansive and diverse holdings in American history, literature, and high and popular culture. Rich library and archival materials are complemented by the Huntington Art Museum’s outstanding American art collections.
About The Huntington
The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens is a cultural and educational institution of global significance. Building on Henry E. and Arabella Huntington’s renowned collections, The Huntington supports research and promotes education in the arts, humanities, and botanical science through the growth and preservation of its collections; the development of a community of scholars, school programs, and partnerships; and the display and interpretation of its extraordinary resources for diverse audiences. The Huntington is located at 1151 Oxford Road, San Marino, California, 12 miles from downtown Los Angeles. Visitor information: huntington.org.
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