Black History Month: History Professors’ Peer-Reviewed Article Addresses Race, Labor and Borderlands

February 11, 2014 | Queensborough Community College

NicholsDr. James David Nichols of the History Department, Liberal Arts Academy, has long studied black history. His research is based on the study of African Americans who would not allow slavery to control their destiny.

“Running away was a form of resistance that has received short shrift in the literature,” said Dr. Nichols, who published a peer-reviewed article, Searching for Liberty in the Borderlands: Runaway Slaves in Texas and Fugitive Peons in Northern Mexico in the Wake of Guadalupe Hidalgo. The paper focused on the role runaway slaves played in shaping the early history of the international border between the United States and Mexico.

Runaway slaves from Texas—and to a lesser extent, Louisiana —often crossed into Mexico before the Emancipation Proclamation. Mexico was a free country before the United States became one, and by setting foot on Mexican soil, black slaves could claim their freedom. Such journeys to freedom were not uncommon in the first half of the nineteenth century.

The Promise of Refuge and Liberty

But even after 1848—when the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo drew the international line between the United States and Mexico—the border remained fluid. In fact the number of blacks who sojourned to freedom on the Mexican side actually increased after 1848. This is because when blacks looked at the new border they saw the promise of refuge and liberty on the other side. Once they reached freedom some runaways tried to fit into Mexican society as best as they could, taking on odd jobs and sometimes working on the ranches that lined the Mexican side of the international border. Others travelled further west and joined a growing maroon colony developing around Nacimiento, Coahuila.

New Strain of Research in Black/Latino History

“We are beginning to see that blacks and Latinos have had an important shared history. For example, in my article I argue that servile laborers from Mexico were instrumental in helping blacks reach freedom. This finding confirms a new direction in the scholarship of Latin America, a direction that is helping us get closer to writing a history of the black diaspora that encompasses the entire western hemisphere. This new direction has even found expression in popular culture; Henry Louis Gates Jr. has recently addressed black Latin America in a PBS Made-for-TV series. Efforts such as these are starting to reveal how black history and American history are not separate from one another.”

Dr. Nichols graduated from Northern Illinois University with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Art and History. He joined Queensborough in 2012 as an Assistant Professor of History after completing his doctorate at Stony Brook University.