The Daily Gamecock

Ph.D. candidate presents research on slaves' agency in antebellum South

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Zoie Anderson-Horecny was unsure of what to do with her life as an undergraduate student at USC. After graduating in only three years, she is now taking part in a long-term historical debate in pursuit of her Ph.D.  in history. 

On Wednesday, the first-year Ph.D. candidate presented her research on enslaved agency in the antebellum South, focusing in particular on the South Carolina midlands. She defines enslaved agency as the idea that an enslaved person could possibly act as an agent of change in spite of their captive state. 

Anderson-Horecny said her presented research only represents of a fraction of her research interests at the university as she begins to pursue teaching.

“I just really fell in love with the impact you can make with someone who is a college age and how much classes can make an impact on the student,” Anderson-Horecny said. “I remember not really caring. I was five different majors, and I took a really amazing class on Southern studies, and it was sort of like everything opened up."

Anderson-Horecny used her undergraduate experience to explore varying interests but eventually settled on history for her major. She spent time studying magic, science and religion in the pre-Civil War South and became intrigued by enslaved culture and what it meant to make choices as a slave under white oppression. She has used her first post-graduate year to explore the debate surrounding enslaved agency. 

Historians debate the extent that slaves could act in independence in their environment, and new information on slave movement within captivity is surfacing, constantly changing and improving the intellectual playing field. Anderson-Horecny uses her research confined to the midlands of South Carolina to argue that slaves could enact change in family life, religion and labor. 

“It took me a while to get there,” Anderson-Horecny said. “I think what really draws me to history and keeps me coming back is just the archive. You’ll be always surprised what you can find.” 

Anderson-Horecny began her research in antebellum Southern history as an undergraduate in Mark Smith’s upper division history class. Smith, Anderson-Horecny's mentor, said her "diligence and keen eye for historical detail" made her a good candidate for a Ph.D. at USC.

“She pays particular attention to their spiritual worlds and their efforts to resist bondage,” Smith said in an email. “We talk about her findings frequently ... Her work is innovative and will tell a great deal about the worlds fashioned by the enslaved.”

Anderson-Horecny talked about the prevalence of Hush Harbors: sacred groves where slaves would practice forms of African Christianity, quieting their worship by speaking into pots or baskets. She characterized the religious lives of enslaved people through experiences of white observers at the time and explained a failed insurrection in Camden, South Carolina. 

Anderson-Horecny used findings from the South Caroliniana Library for her presentation. Her fellow graduate students said they were surprised and intrigued by enslaved women's use of cotton root as a contraceptive. 

Caitlin White, a graduate theatre education student, said she found the small autonomy among enslaved women through contraceptives to be important.

"The idea that enslaved women used cotton root as contraception was really fascinating to me,” White said. "The idea that there was this act of resistance that was shared among enslaved women, it's really awesome and just really interesting.”

As Anderson-Horecny continues her research, she said she hopes to delve deeper into the history of South Carolina, particularly pursuing her interests in magic, science and religion. She said she hopes to influence her fellow students in pursuing their passions as she furthers her education. 

“Once I figured out what I wanted to do, I wanted to go, because you have that option. And that’s kind of what I think is important about college,” Anderson-Horecny said. “You see students and you can see it among your friends. When they figure out what they want to do, there's nothing that can stop them."


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