There are so many disturbing aspects of the enslavement of Africans that took place in the United States between 1619 and 1865, it’s hard to know where to begin. But it’s safe to say that the sexual violence against enslaved women is as troubling as it gets. It’s a topic that hits close to home — quite literally — for Shannon Eaves, an assistant professor of African American history at the College of Charleston, whose great-great grandmother bore two children fathered by her former enslaver, Montgomery Eaves.

And after receiving a prestigious Postdoctoral Research Leave Fellowship from the American Association of University Women (AAUW), which supports female scholars, she’ll be able to spend the next year researching and writing a book on the subject. Titled Illicit Intercourse: How the Sexual Exploitation of Enslaved Women Shaped the Antebellum South, Eaves’ work will explore the political, social and economic consequences the rape culture had on all Southerners.

“A great friend from graduate school who was an AAUW fellow encouraged me to apply,” says Eaves, who earned a doctorate in U.S. history from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2015. “She believed my work would be very appealing to the organization. I am very happy that I followed her advice.”

The College Today recently spoke with Eaves about her book and receiving the fellowship.

What was your reaction when you heard you won?

I was extremely excited to learn that I had been awarded the AAUW postdoctoral fellowship. Research fellowships are so hard to come by these days. As scholars, we anticipate rejection because there are so many talented people around the world vying for a small pool of fellowships. I was quite shocked when I opened the award letter. I could not wait to tell my parents. They have been my biggest cheerleaders throughout graduate school and my professional career.

How will it help you research and write your book?

Writing scholarly work is a complex process that requires focus, creativity and time. It can be quite challenging to write when you are also teaching, mentoring students and serving on committees. This fellowship will allow me to devote all my time to my book manuscript and some smaller research projects. Having that kind of time allows you to get in a zone and produce higher-quality work. Archives and libraries are beginning to open after shutting down due to the pandemic. I will have the time to travel to archives and do any last-minute research that my book might need. I feel extremely fortunate to have this opportunity.

Tell us a little bit more about your book.

Illicit Intercourse examines how enslaved people and enslavers became aware of and understood the systematic rape and sexual exploitation of enslaved women. I explore how these groups came to know what this culture of systemic rape and exploitation meant for their lives and the lives of others. In the book, I illustrate how the enslaved and enslavers navigated space and relationships and negotiated the boundaries of power within the plantation system during the antebellum period.

How did you become interested in the topic?

I became interested in this topic for many reasons, but the most interesting one is that my great-great-grandmother, Sarah Hutto, was owned by the Hutto family of Barnwell County, South Carolina. During slavery, she labored as the housekeeper for Montgomery Eaves and Elizabeth Hutto Eaves. After the Civil War, she continued to work as the Eaves’ housekeeper and gave birth to two children by Montgomery Eaves. Though Hutto’s children were born in the 1870s, she had been owned by Montgomery Eaves at one time. My curiosity in the power dynamics of their relationship and how Hutto’s two children were treated by Eaves’ white family sparked many of the questions I set out to answer in my book project.