History and Law Professor Dylan Penningroth talks about his academic journey and new book about Black Civil Rights

UC Berkeley History and Law Professor Dylan Penningroth.

“Trial of Rev. Benjamin,” from J. Vance Lewis, Out of the Ditch: A True Story of an Ex-Slave(Houston: Rein & Sons, 1910). The image is from a copy held by NY Public Library, and is public domain.

“Church Ann[iversary] 1947.” Undated photograph, inside First Baptist Church, South Orange, New Jersey. Deacon Robert Baskerville (my grandfather) is on the left. Church anniversary celebrations like this one helped raise money, bonded members together, and ensured that legally important facts—some of which became crucial during lawsuits—became matters of public “notice.” They were also just plain fun. Credit: author's collection.

May 28, 2024

UC Berkeley History and Law Professor Dylan Penningroth began his journey in academia after receiving his bachelor’s degree in history from Yale and his Ph.D. in history from the Johns Hopkins University. Throughout his career at Berkeley, Professor Penningroth has taught, mentored and inspired countless undergraduate and graduate students. 

Recipient of prestigious awards including the Merle Curti Prize, the Ellis Hawley Prize, the Civil War and Reconstruction Prize, and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Science Foundation, and a MacArthur Fellowship, Penningroth's contributions to academia are unparalleled. His relentless pursuit of knowledge has led to groundbreaking insights into Black legal lives, challenging conventional narratives and reshaping our understanding of American history. In his acclaimed new book Before the Movement: The Hidden History of Black Civil Rights, historian Dylan C. Penningroth rewrites the conventional narrative around the civil rights movement.

Professor Penningroth spoke to Berkeley Social Sciences recently about his career, newest book and hopes for the future. His interview is edited for clarity.

Please tell us more about your background and how you ended up at UC Berkeley?
Dylan Penningroth: I trained as a historian at Johns Hopkins, specializing in African American history and African history. I was a Carter G. Woodson Fellow and then assistant professor of history at the University of Virginia before moving on to become a history professor at Northwestern University. In 2007, I began a half-time appointment as a research professor at the American Bar Foundation, a research institute focusing on interdisciplinary empirical research on the intersection of law and society. 

In 2015, I came to Berkeley with a joint appointment that is half in the History Department and half in the Program of Jurisprudence and Social Policy (JSP), which is dedicated to the interdisciplinary study of law at Berkeley Law. Unlike the American Bar Foundation, JSP has a vigorous teaching component, including a Ph.D. program and an undergraduate Legal Studies major with 450 students. I am currently the associate dean and chair of the JSP/Legal Studies program. 

Looking back on my career so far, I see at least one strong through-line: I had incredible mentors along the way. There were my advisors in graduate school—Michael P. Johnson, a leading historian of the 19th-century South; and Sara Berry, a brilliant economics-trained historian of Africa. Both were incredibly generous with their time whenever I knocked on their office doors. There were Herman Bennett and Jennifer Morgan, who were then postdocs at Johns Hopkins, and who created a warm haven for some of us Black grad students. You have to remember that in the mid-1990s, some academics—including a very famous professor in the very History Department at Johns Hopkins we were studying in—still didn’t think we belonged. 

And when I got to Charlottesville, as a new Assistant Professor at the University of Virginia, there was the late Reginald Butler, director of the UVA Woodson Institute, who modeled how to move through the world of academia with grace and quiet brilliance. Some of this mentoring was formal and visible. A lot of it was not. I would not be here if not for them. 

Tell us more about your book, Before the Movement: The Hidden History of Black Civil Rights?
Dylan Penningroth: My book is about how Black people used law, talked about law and thought about law, in an era when we usually think they were outside the law. It has two big aspirations. First, to offer a new model for writing about African American history. Race relations is the dominant mode of scholarly writing about Black people. I am trying to complement and expand beyond that model, by focusing on Black people’s relations with one another, including their intimate relations. For example, we are often told that “the Black family” was a place of collective resilience in the face of white oppression. But I want to show that it was also a site of self-making, disagreement and politics — a place where people questioned what it meant to be a son or a mother or a cousin, and what family members owed each other. 

Second, I want to tell a story about how the meaning of “civil rights” changed from the 1830s to the 1970s. In 1830, “civil rights” meant property, contract and the right to go to court — rights that all free people used in their everyday lives. By 1960, it meant the right not to be discriminated against — a special body of law set apart for minorities. And people no longer remembered the long history of Black people exercising the rights of everyday use. 

What kind of awards has the book won? 
Dylan Penningroth: Before the Movement was awarded two book prizes recently from the Organization of American Historians: the 2024 Merle Curti Social History Award and the Ellis W. Hawley Award. It has also been awarded the David J. Langum Sr. Prize in American Legal History for 2023. 

What was the inspiration behind writing it?
Dylan Penningroth: The anthropologist and novelist Zora Neale Hurston once wrote that “research is formalized curiosity. It is poking and prying with a purpose.” My curiosity came partly from family stories. My mother’s family came from Virginia and they still had ties there when I was growing up in New Jersey in the 1970s and 80s. I would hear older relatives talking about life in Cumberland and Baskerville, Va. 

They didn’t talk about the civil rights movement. Instead, they talked about ordinary things: moving up North because they couldn’t make it on the farm; sending money back to Cumberland to pay taxes on the family land; and one fascinating story about my great-great-great-uncle Jackson Holcomb, who had a boat even though he was a slave, and once got paid for ferrying Confederate soldiers across a river. Each of these stories opens up questions about law and Black life. So, Before the Movement is a deeply personal book. 

What do you hope the book's impact will be?
Dylan Penningroth: I hope that it helps put Black people at the center of their own history. We have to grasp Black people’s political, economic, religious and family commitments as more than episodes in race relations or echoes of America’s original sin. When we take that broader view, we can better see the rich diversity of Black life in all its messy humanness: the ways they loved each other, exploited each other, fought each other, got annoyed with each other, helped each other, joked with each other; and how they dealt with getting old. The basic premise of this book is that Black people’s lives are worth studying in themselves. 

Finally, I hope the hidden history of Black civil rights will open up ways of rooting present-day movement activism in a deep history of Black legal activity and Black legal thought. Former New York Governor Mario Cuomo used to say that politicians campaign in poetry but govern in prose. Activists must work in both poetry and prose. But it is all too tempting to lose sight of the prosaic stuff of law that has always been crucial to struggles for social justice and that regular people can relate to. What I have tried to do is to replant a familiar story in the soil where it first grew. And I hope it may flourish beyond the academy.