2021 Lecture #3

Jousting with History on a Stick: What Commemorations of  Mary “Bowser” Richards Denman Reveal About How to Center African American Women in U.S. History

Guest Speaker:
Dr. Lois Leveen


In April 2021, Governor Northam announced that Virginia would erect five new historical highway markers, all commemorating Black history, including one for a woman referred to as “Mary Richards Bowser” in the official announcement from the governor’s office.  Who was this woman?  What did she do to make her worthy of this honor – and why did she do it?  In this talk, these questions will serve as a lens for understanding how historians and biographers learn about the past.  Historical markers – sometimes jokingly referred to as “history on a stick” – provide an important way to honor significant people and events, and to educate the public.  But these markers may also reinforce false beliefs about history, erasing the meticulous care required to document and interpret the past accurately. Using the example of Mary “Bowser” Richards Denman, Dr. Lois Leveen explores what happens when we put Black women at the center of our understanding of history.  How does centering Black women give us greater insight into antebellum Virginia, into the Civil War, and into the ongoing struggle for justice and full citizenship for African Americans after emancipation?  Join us for this timely and fascinating look at the particular challenges and rewards of documenting and interpreting the lives of African Americans, of women, and especially of African American women.


Dr. Lois Leveen earned degrees in history and literature from Harvard University, the University of Southern California, and UCLA. A former faculty member at UCLA and Reed College, she is now a public humanities scholar, leading programs at museums, libraries, K-12 schools, and universities. Her writing has appeared in The Atlantic, The New York Times, and similar outlets, and in scholarly journals and academic books. Having turned a footnote from her dissertation into the novel The Secrets of Mary Bowser (HarperCollins 2012), she is now researching the first scholarly biography of Mary Richards Denman, the real figure behind the “Mary Bowser” myth.

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