Dr. Kimberly Welch is a socio-legal historian who scours endangered legal archives legal archives in the United States in an effort to reframe perspectives on African-American agency in the antebellum period.
Welch’s scholarship has revealed new dimensions of slavery, race, and the law in the American South during the 19th century. Her methodology approaches the law and slavery from the bottom up: Rather than focusing on statutes and appellate court decisions as conclusive expressions of law, she examines trial court records, church disciplinary hearings, and other local legal records in order to uncover the role ordinary people played in shaping legal processes.
Welch’s work has advanced our understanding of what law is and who it is for. The antebellum U.S. South offers fertile ground for critically examining who defines law and rights, and to what end. Scholars often think about rights as something given or provided through nature or statute, but Welch has demonstrated that rights are more properly imagined as capacities claimed through rhetoric – including the rhetoric of those without formal power.
Welch is an Associate Professor of History at Vanderbilt University and author of Black Litigants in the Antebellum American South (2018). She is currently working on a book that examines free Black moneylenders and their involvement in the credit economy of the early modern Atlantic world.
her first book received several prizes: the William Nelson Cromwell Foundation Book Prize, of the American Society for Legal History; the James H. Broussard Best Book First Book Prize, awarded by Society for Historians of the Early American Republic; the J. Willard Hurst Prize for the best book in socio-legal history, given by the Law and Society Association; and the David J. Langum Sr. Prize for best book in American Legal History, from the Langum Charitable Trust.
Welch was also awarded the Chancellor’s Award for Research by Vanderbilt University. Her research has been supported by a multi-year National Science Foundation grant and fellowships from the American Council of Learned Societies, the Newberry Library, the American Bar Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, among others.
Welch was awarded a Mellon New Directions fellowship for 2022-2024, for her project The Stability of Fortunes: Black Americans and Finance in the Nineteenth Century.