Kathleen Hilliard

Informal Economy, Civil War, Slavery, & Emancipation


Office:643 Ross
527 Farm House Ln.
Ames IA


As a peripatetic Marine Corps “brat,” roving Virginia, Georgia, and the Carolinas, I grew up a natural observer of the politics, economy, and culture of southern rural life. After completing my doctorate at the University of South Carolina, I enjoyed two years teaching at the University of Idaho, and moved to Iowa State in 2008.

In January 2022, I began a three-year term as Vice President, Teaching Division, of the American Historical Association. Across the nation, history teachers at all levels face enormous pressures and shoulder immense responsibilities. In my role as VP, I aim to create spaces and resources for educators to share tools and sharpen students’ inquiries about the past, and the structures and communities in which they live. I seek to overcome barriers between history teachers at all levels and the broader public, promoting better understandings of the work we do, the passions that drive us, and the value of our labor to create a new generation of question-askers and problem solvers, so central to building a democratic society.


My research examines the development of the southern United States, considering how seemingly competing notions of freedom and slavery, tradition and change, honor and reform shaped the region. Political struggle and social anxiety marked southerners’ lives—on the plantation, in the fields, and within their sanctuaries. Understanding how women and men—enslaved, free, and at all stages in between—ordered their worlds and negotiated political, economic, and social relations informs the questions I ask and the projects I pursue. My first book, Masters, Slaves, and Exchange: Power's Purchase in the Old South (Cambridge University Press, 2014), examines enslaved people’s underground economic lives—both as buyers and sellers of goods—to understand how slavery functioned at the local level.

Currently, I’m at work on two research projects. With Lawrence McDonnell, I’m writing a book entitled, Dark Bargain: Love, Murder, and Vengeance in the Old South. On the surface, it's the surprising story of Martin Posey, who hires his enslaved man, Appling, to murder his wife so he can run off with her sister. Complications ensue. There's murder, sex, and witchcraft, but also a deeper story about slavery, informal law, kinship, and fraying bonds of community.

My other book in progress, Bonds Burst Asunder: The Revolutionary Politics of Getting By in Civil War and Emancipation, 1860-1867, examines the transformation of southern political economy, exploring how crisis and transition generated contradictions in slavery’s cruel paternalist bargain. Stretching from the Confederacy’s creation to the rise of Military Reconstruction, it examines two central questions: how did black and white southerners recreate and transform relations of power in the chaos of civil war and emancipation? And how did a political economy of “getting by” in wartime shape the way old ties were exploded and new ways negotiated?

I’m grateful to have received fellowship support from the American Antiquarian Society, the Huntington Library, the Massachusetts Historical Society and Boston Athenaeum, the Library of Company of Philadelphia and Historical Society of Pennsylvania (through the Program in Early American Economy and Society), the New-York Historical Society, the Summersell Center at the University of Alabama, the Virginia Museum of History and Culture, and the John Hope Franklin Center for African and African American History at Duke University. In 2018, ISU’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences recognized me with the Dean’s Emerging Faculty Leader Award.

Teaching and University Service

I teach a range of course at the undergraduate and graduate level, including:

  • HIST 221: US Survey I (face-to-face and online)
  • HIST 301: The Historian’s Craft
  • HIST 455: Civil War and Reconstruction
  • HIST 461: The Rural South
  • HIST 495: Senior Capstone Seminar
  • HIST 511b: Readings in Nineteenth-Century US History
  • HIST 552a: Readings in US Rural and Agricultural History
  • HIST 593b: Research Seminar in Nineteenth Century History
  • Experimental Courses and Independent studies: Transatlantic Slavery, Reconstruction and Emancipation, US Slavery, Nineteenth-Century Market Culture, American Consumerism

I am actively involved with AHA’s Career Diversity Initiative both as Director of Graduate Education within the Department of History and as panelist and co-facilitator in AHA-sponsored events and workshops. I’ve chaired the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Honors Committee and served on the university library’s committee on Open and Affordable Education. I’ve worked with Des Moines high school teachers through the Department of Education’s Teaching American History program and facilitated discussions with members of the Ames community through the American Library Association’s “Let’s Talk About It” series on the Civil War.