William G. Thomas III has earned the Mark Lynton History Prize for his new book, “A Question of Freedom: The Families Who Challenged Slavery from the Nation’s Founding to the Civil War,” published by Yale University Press in November 2020.
The Lynton Prize honors the year’s best book-length work of narrative history on any subject that combines intellectual distinction with felicity of expression. It is one of four J. Anthony Lukas Prize Project awards that honor excellence in nonfiction writing and are given by the Columbia Journalism School and the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University. Past recipients of the Lynton Prize include Robert Caro, Isabel Wilkerson and Jill Lepore.
“I’m especially honored to receive the Lynton prize,” said Thomas, Angle Chair in the Humanities and professor of history at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. “The past awardees and the authors on this year’s shortlist are all writers of great distinction, courage and accomplishment. I’m thrilled to be among them.”
“A Question of Freedom” traces the efforts of families in Prince George’s County, Maryland, who filed hundreds of lawsuits for their freedom, some of which reached the U.S. Supreme Court. Between 1787 and 1861, these lawsuits challenged the legitimacy of slavery, put slavery on trial in the nation’s capital and took on powerful slaveholders, including Jesuit priests who owned some of the nation’s largest plantations and founded what would become Georgetown University.
“In elegant, engrossing prose, ‘A Question of Freedom’ combines relentless and impeccable historical scholarship with a heartfelt personal narrative,” the prize’s judges wrote in their citation. “Throughout this extraordinary work, Thomas details the court cases brought by slaves to demand their freedom. And he insists that we learn the names of the families — among them, the Queens and the Butlers — whose brave members used the law to require a fledgling nation to live up to its stated ideal of equality.”
For the book, Thomas relied much on the freedom suits he has unearthed from archives, researched and digitized for his digital humanities project, “O Say Can You See: Early Washington, D.C., Law and Family,” which has also garnered awards, including financial support from the National Endowment for the Humanities.
Since its publication, “A Question of Freedom” has been featured in The New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Publishers Weekly and more. The book is also resonating with readers for its focus on individual families and their quest for freedom.
“It has been gratifying and heartening to hear from readers who say that ‘A Question of Freedom’ tells a story they’ve not heard before and deals honestly with the problem of slavery in American history,” Thomas said. “It’s a personal encounter with history and with the descendants of the families who sued for freedom.”
Thomas is developing a feature-length film, “The Bell Affair,” based on the book with Kwakiutl Dreher and Michael Burton, both faculty at Nebraska. This film follows the team’s short film, “Anna,” which was shown at multiple film festivals and earned the best animation award at the New Media Film Festival in 2018.
Thomas has been a faculty member at Nebraska since 2005 and was chair of the Department of History from 2010-16. He was named a John Simon Guggenheim Foundation Fellow in 2016 and now serves as associate dean for research and graduate education in the College of Arts and Sciences.