♀ Negro: Embodied Experiences of Inequality in Historic New York

Date of Award

Summer 8-27-2021

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




Novak, Shannon


Bioarchaeology, Black feminist theory, Historical archaeology

Subject Categories

African American Studies | Arts and Humanities | History of Art, Architecture, and Archaeology | Race, Ethnicity and Post-Colonial Studies


This dissertation examines the lives of working-class Black women in New York City from ca. 1800 to 1920. There has been a proliferation of studies on Black history here in the United States, especially when it comes to the lives of every day Black women, but most of these projects involve traditional archives, including census data, prison records, hospital records, news stories, etc. However, the history of chattel slavery and discrimination against Black people has produced numerous silences in customary tax, property, and census records. I view skeletal collections as an extension of the archive by studying The National Museum of Natural History's Huntington Collection, which consists of the remains of some 3,600 individuals whose bodies went unclaimed and who were subsequently dissected at the College of Physicians and Surgeons between 1892 and 1920. I focus on 79 individuals who were labeled either "Black" or "Negro" females upon their deaths and accessioning into the collection, including the archival remains of 16 women whose skeletons have been lost. This research stems from the work of scholars asking questions of and about Black females and their bodies and bodily representations. However, I do not want reproduce positivist science that verifies racial and gendered differences while accepting Black death and suffering as research findings. Therefore, bioarchaeological and anthropological approaches are informed by Black feminism. Utilizing life course and intersectional approaches, I aim to better understand how race, gender, class, and place came to be literally embodied, and (re)insert physical remains into the wider discussion of black women's histories in the United States, while also exploring the ethics of curating such remains in museum collections.


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