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
  • E-book EPUB ISBN: 978-1-4696-6223-7
    Published: January 2021
  • E-book PDF ISBN: 979-8-8908-5750-7
    Published: January 2021
  • Hardcover ISBN: 978-1-4696-6221-3
    Published: February 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

2021 Mary Kelley Prize, Society for Historians of the Early American Republic

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

Finalist, 2023 Shapiro Book Prize, Shapiro Center for American History and Culture at The Huntington

2023 Francis B. Simkins Award, Southern Historical Association

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

“In this excellent book Nunley offers a roadmap for historians to take Black women’s visions of freedom as seriously as their successes.”—Washington History

“Beautifully illustrates how individual desires for self-possession, family, and community, formed before the Civil War, pushed African American women to work toward a world that more closely resembled the ones they imagined.”—Journal of Southern History

“Extensively and impressively researched. . . . [At the Threshold of Liberty] is extremely rewarding, as the reader gains a sense of the social and cultural geography of Washington, D.C., and the crucial networks that African American women created and sustained as they made themselves on their own terms.”—North Carolina Historical Review

"A major achievement that makes critical contributions to historians’ understandings of Black women’s long-term battles for liberty in the

District of Columbia. It will be of great interest to scholars of slavery, race,

gender, and the Atlantic world . . . . Nunley expertly unpacks archival silences, fragments, and discursive violence in the existing records."—William and Mary Quarterly