The Capital of Free Women: Dr Danielle Terrazas Williams on her prize-winning book

The book was published by Yale University Press in 2022 and has received numerous prize and honourable mentions.

About the book

Dr Terrazas Williams joined us to speak about her prize-winning book.

Why did you want to write this book?

I wrote this book to explore the gendered history of freedom, underscore my interest in how Black women negotiated Spanish institutions, and highlight my investment in writing the history of people. Often only one generation removed from slavery, free Black women in central Veracruz owned businesses and land, served as influential matriarchs, managed intergenerational wealth, and even owned slaves of African descent. Their stories are complex and tragically incomplete. Nonetheless, The Capital of Free Women deepens the historiography of Slavery Studies by examining an earlier period of free Black life and complicates our understanding of how free Black women responded to the developing socio-economic and religious landscapes of Spanish America.

Your research brings together the categories of gender and race. How did this intersectionality manifest in the lives of the African-descended women you have researched?

The women who I highlight in the book demonstrate that they were keenly aware of the gendered expectations of the 17th century. Their investments into the dowries of their daughters and religious lay organizations, for example, underscore their willingness to perform social and religious expectations of the day. However, their racialized experienced as Black women included being viewed by their contemporaries as lacking honor, remaining vulnerable to accusations of collaborating with escaped slaves, and being surveilled and questioned. The liberty cards that some of them purchased did not free them of these burdens. Wealth did not shield them or their families. As Black women, they had to remain vigilant to secure their liberty and their legacies.

What kind of archival sources did you use in the course of your research, and what makes these sources key to your work?

I mobilized archival sources from Jesuit annual letters, viceregal edicts, reports to the Crown, parish records, and most significantly, the notarial archives of the central Veracruz region. My work is people-centred and the local archives of Mexico, so well-preserved by archivists, librarians, nuns, and volunteers, ensured that I could highlight Black women’s experiences as they helped shape the increasingly global world around them.

Which characters did you discover in the course of your research whom you think we should know more about, and why?

I first encountered a document about a free Black woman named María de la Candelária in the notarial archives of Xalapa nearly 20 years ago. I remember scanning the 17th-century Spanish paleography and immediately pausing at the word enemigo or enemy. María de la Candelária’s daughter, also named María, had been abducted.

I immediately consulted with the head archivist Alfonsa Sequera and she noted that it was likely referring to the pirate attack spearheaded by a man known as Lorencillo. After countless trips to multiple archives, what was once a truncated vignette in my doctoral thesis evolved to serve as the capstone of my book. The final chapter, ‘Preserving Legacies’, revolves around the questioning of the legitimacy of a Black woman’s marriage to a wealthy and landowning Black man. In her legal fight to establish herself as the rightful beneficiary to her late husband’s estate, we learn that her community rallied around her and divulged that in 1683 Maria had suffered the loss of her daughter to the infamous Dutch pirate Laurens de Graff.

The history of María de la Candelaria highlights Black women’s demands for dignity and the continued vulnerability of Black people, regardless of their economic station in society. It is also a poignant reminder that local archives can open up Atlantic histories in ways previously unexplored. 

Awards and mentions

2024: Winner of the 2023 Rosalyn Terborg-Penn award for the Best Book in Black Women’s History from the Association for the Study of the African Diaspora.

2023: Winner of the 2022 Murdo MacLeod Book Prize from the Latin American and Caribbean Section of the Southern Historical Association.

2023: Silver Medal, Best History Book, International Latino Book Awards.

2023: Honourable Mention, Howard F. Cline Prize in Mexican History, Latin American Studies Association.

2022: Honourable Mention, Letitia Woods Brown Book Prize, The Association of Black Women Historians.

More information

The Capital of Free Women: Race, Legitimacy, and Liberty in Colonial Mexico is published by Yale University Press.

In January 2024, Dr Danielle Terrazas Williams was presented with the 2023 Cyprian Davis, O.S.B., Prize from Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism at the annual meeting of the American Catholic Historical Association held in San Francisco, California. The prize is in support of her second book project entitled Imagining Catholic Empires: Slavery, Freedom, and the Jesuits in Colonial Mexico, which focuses on the history of the Society of Jesus as they engaged with Black people during the seventeenth century. Read more about Dr Terrazas Williams’s work on her staff profile.