At the Threshold of Liberty

Women, Slavery, and Shifting Identities in Washington, D.C.

By Tamika Y. Nunley

272 pp., 6.125 x 9.25, 7 halftones, 1 map

  • Paperback ISBN: 978-1-4696-6222-0
    Published: February 2021
  • Hardcover ISBN: 978-1-4696-6221-3
    Published: February 2021
  • eBook ISBN: 978-1-4696-6223-7
    Published: January 2021

John Hope Franklin Series in African American History and Culture

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Awards & distinctions

2021 Letitia Woods Brown Prize, Association for Black Women Historians

2022 Pauli Murray Book Prize, African American Intellectual History Society

Honorable Mention, 2022 Darlene Clark Hine Award, Organization of American Historians

Finalist, 2022 Association for the Study of African American Life and History Book Prize

Shortlisted, 2021 Museum of African American History Stone Book Award

The capital city of a nation founded on the premise of liberty, nineteenth-century Washington, D.C., was both an entrepôt of urban slavery and the target of abolitionist ferment. The growing slave trade and the enactment of Black codes placed the city’s Black women within the rigid confines of a social hierarchy ordered by race and gender. At the Threshold of Liberty reveals how these women--enslaved, fugitive, and free--imagined new identities and lives beyond the oppressive restrictions intended to prevent them from ever experiencing liberty, self-respect, and power.

Consulting newspapers, government documents, letters, abolitionist records, legislation, and memoirs, Tamika Y. Nunley traces how Black women navigated social and legal proscriptions to develop their own ideas about liberty as they escaped from slavery, initiated freedom suits, created entrepreneurial economies, pursued education, and participated in political work. In telling these stories, Nunley places Black women at the vanguard of the history of Washington, D.C., and the momentous transformations of nineteenth-century America.

About the Author

Tamika Y. Nunley is associate professor of history at Cornell University.
For more information about Tamika Y. Nunley, visit the Author Page.


“A focused study on the way that Black women have transcended slavery. . . . Well-researched.”--Library Journal

"Nunley makes an incredible contribution to the field of the study of African American women in the nineteenth century. She leaves her readers with an irrefutable understanding of the centrality of Black women in the establishment of the capital’s reputation as a site of liberty and justice for all...[An] impressively cohesive study exemplifies the duality of Black women’s and girls’ lived experiences in the capital at a pivotal turning point in the political project of nation-making."--Black Perspectives

"Tamika Nunley's wonderful book puts remarkable women at the center of African Americans’ struggle for full freedom in the nation's capital."--Chris Myers Asch, co-author of Chocolate City: A History of Race and Democracy in the Nation's Capital

"Tamika Y. Nunley has written a nuanced, humane, and powerful history of Black women's freedom-making in Washington, D.C. At the Threshold of Liberty is a major contribution."--William G. Thomas III, author of A Question of Freedom: The Families Who Challenged Slavery from the Nation’s Founding to the Civil War