Historian named National Humanities Center fellow

John Wood Sweet is documenting the life of Venture Smith, who wrote an account of his enslavement and freedom.

John Wood Sweet sitting in front of library.
John Wood Sweet received a National Humanities Center fellowship. (Alyssa LaFaro/UNC Research)

History professor John Wood Sweet was among 31 scholars awarded National Humanities Center fellowships for the 2024-25 academic year.

Sweet was the only researcher from UNC-Chapel Hill to receive a fellowship.

The newly appointed fellows, chosen from among 492 applicants, come from universities and colleges in 16 U.S. states and the District of Columbia, as well as Canada, Hong Kong and the United Kingdom. Each fellow will work on an individual research project and will have the opportunity to share ideas in seminars, lectures and conferences.

The new fellows represent the 47th class of resident scholars since the center opened in 1978.

Sweet will work on his next book project, “The Captive’s Tale: Venture Smith and the Roots of the American Republic,” under contract with Henry Holt & Company.

More than 12 million captives endured the Middle Passage from Africa to the Americas, but only a handful managed to leave behind eyewitness accounts. One of them was Broteer — who, as a boy on a slave ship rocking in the Atlantic, was renamed Venture. As a man in his 30s, living on his own Connecticut farm, he renamed himself Venture Smith. His autobiography, published in 1798 near the end of his long life, was the first of its kind in the United States and inaugurated a powerful tradition of American slave narratives. His dramatic life spanned not only the Atlantic Ocean but also the era of the American Revolution.

“Venture Smith’s story illuminates how the dynamics of colonialism shaped the founding of the new republic,” Sweet said. “In this biography, based on extensive research in Africa, the West Indies, the United States, Britain and France, I emphasize key themes revealed by Venture’s life and work.”

Sweet is a historian of early America who specializes in the social and cultural histories of race, gender and sexuality during the periods before and after the American Revolution. He is the author of “The Sewing Girl’s Tale: A Story of Crime and Consequences in Revolutionary America,” recipient of the Bancroft Prize.

The National Humanities Center is the world’s only independent institute dedicated exclusively to advanced study in all areas of the humanities. Through its residential fellowship program, the center provides scholars with the resources necessary to generate new knowledge and to further understanding of all forms of cultural expression, social interaction and human thought.

“We are extremely pleased to be able to support the exciting work of these exceptional scholars,” said Robert D. Newman, president and director of the center. “They were selected from a highly competitive group of applicants representing institutions from across the globe. We look forward to their arrival in the fall as they each contribute their individual brilliance to creating a lively intellectual community.”

Learn more about the new class of fellows.