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Monday, September 14, 2020 - 9:45am

Assistant Professor of History Robert Murray was awarded the Ralph D. Gray Prize for the best original article of 2019 in the Journal of the Early Republic, which is published by the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic (SHEAR).

His article, “Bodies in Motion: Liberian Settlers, Medicine, and Mobility in the Atlantic World,” focuses on Samuel McGill, a Black man who moved back and forth between America and Africa in the mid-19th century. McGill is also a key character in Murray’s upcoming book, “Atlantic Passages: Race, Mobility, and Liberian Colonization,” which will be published by University Press of Florida next year. While researching the book, Murray came across some sources related to McGill that did not fit into the book’s narrative, but he felt that they were important enough to warrant an article.

The article’s primary focus is exploring McGill’s shifting racial identity. He was born in America but moved back and forth to Liberia and was the first Black man to graduate from an American medical school. Depending on where he was living at the time and where he had come from most recently, his perceived racial identity shifted.

The journal’s prize committee explained the article’s analysis as follows: “We become witness to how the ostensible dichotomy between American and African identities — between white and black — could be exploited by African-Americans and recast as its opposite, that is, as an insistently porous boundary. The dialectics of such ‘passing’ are complex indeed as McGill, born a ‘negro,’ became a ‘white man’ in western Africa, and then a ‘colorless foreigner’ back in New England. Murray consequently reveals a double movement in which an ‘African’ identity invented in America was transformed into an American identity once, in fact, removed to Africa. As such, ‘Bodies in Motion’ also helps us to engage with categories of ‘race,’ ‘persons of color,’ and ‘identity’ that dominate contemporary discourse no less so than they fill the historical record.”

Murray said that his first reaction upon hearing that he won the prize was a feeling of relief: “I thought that this extraneous material was really important, and I'm glad that apparently others do too. I'm thrilled about that. I knew that it had some really interesting implications for thinking about race, identity and mobility. SHEAR is my academic home because it's where my scholarship fits, so it was really nice to get accepted into my home journal, and then to actually win the award gave me a real sense of satisfaction.”

Murray brings his experience back to the classroom in several ways. For one, he integrates primary sources into his instruction. “Since this sort of research is the heart of the historical discipline, it's really important for students to work through the materials,” he explained. “It's a lot more powerful for them to work through, say, Frederick Douglass' autobiography than just have me lecture on Douglass. So, my part in the classroom is to contextualize and provide support for them as they read this work rather than being the source of information.”

He also invites students into his writing process and the peer review process by sharing drafts of his work in class and even the responses he receives from journals about his submissions — including the initial rejections of “Bodies in Motion,” the suggestions for correction and then the subsequent acceptance.

Murray’s next project involves studying free Black landowners in the upper South before the Civil War and how they were able to survive in such an oppressive system.