Upcoming Event

Robin Bernstein at Harvard Book Store


Freeman’s Challenge:
The Murder That Shook America’s
Original Prison for Profit

in conversation with BRANDON M. TERRY


May 17, 2024
7:00 PM ET


Harvard Book Store
1256 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, MA 02138


This event is free; no tickets are required.

Harvard Book Store and the Hutchins Center for African and African American Studies welcome ROBIN BERNSTEIN—Dillon Professor of American History at Harvard University and the author of Racial Innocence—for a discussion of her new book Freeman’s Challenge: The Murder That Shook America’s Original Prison for Profit. She will be joined in conversation by BRANDON M. TERRY—co-director of the Institute on Policing, Incarceration, and Public Safety at the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research.

About Freeman's Challenge

In the early nineteenth century, as slavery gradually ended in the North, a village in New York State invented a new form of unfreedom: the profit-driven prison. Uniting incarceration and capitalism, the village of Auburn built a prison that enclosed industrial factories. There, “slaves of the state” were leased to private companies. The prisoners earned no wages, yet they manufactured furniture, animal harnesses, carpets, and combs, which consumers bought throughout the North. Then one young man challenged the system.

In Freeman’s Challenge, Robin Bernstein tells the story of an Afro-Native teenager named William Freeman who was convicted of a horse theft he insisted he did not commit and sentenced to five years of hard labor in Auburn’s prison. Incensed at being forced to work without pay, Freeman demanded wages. His challenge triggered violence: first against him, then by him. Freeman committed a murder that terrified and bewildered white America. And white America struck back—with aftereffects that reverberate into our lives today in the persistent myth of inherent Black criminality. William Freeman’s unforgettable story reveals how the North invented prison for profit half a century before the Thirteenth Amendment outlawed slavery “except as a punishment for crime”—and how Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, and other African Americans invented strategies of resilience and resistance in a city dominated by a citadel of unfreedom.

Through one Black man, his family, and his city, Bernstein tells an explosive, moving story about the entangled origins of prison for profit and anti-Black racism.

Praise for Freeman's Challenge

Freeman’s Challenge is a provocative, robust, and rigorously researched interrogation of the historical meaning of imprisonment. Bernstein’s compelling narrative provides insight not only into the institution of the prison in the United States but also into the lives of those whose newly experienced dreams of freedom were crushed by evolving intersections of punishment and racial capitalism. By disengaging the emergence of the prison from what has become its inevitable partner—‘rehabilitation’—Bernstein deftly reveals the deep connections between imprisonment, racism, and the development of the capitalist economy.” —Angela Davis, distinguished professor emerita, University of California, Santa Cruz

"In this narrative tour de force, Bernstein offers a riveting and heartbreaking account of one Afro-Native adolescent’s refusal to be broken by an inhumane New York prison. Freeman’s Challenge is itself a challenge, presenting a bold new argument about the Northeastern roots of an exploitative carceral labor system and the racialized ideology of criminality that followed the formal end of slavery. This study shines a bright light on the interconnected histories of US prisons and economic development; race, indigeneity, land loss, and uncompensated work; and the complications of abolitionist rhetoric, representational politics, and Black community defense." —Tiya Miles, author of All That She Carried: The Journey of Ashley’s Sack, a Black Family Keepsake, winner of the National Book Award

"As Bernstein‘s stunning latest makes so clear, well before the rise of mass incarceration, and long before passage of the Thirteenth Amendment and its deadly sanctifying of slave labor behind bars, American prisons were sites of deep racial injustice, extraordinary abuse, and brutal labor exploitation. Indeed, they were never built to be sites of redemption, but rather have always existed as places to establish and reinforce this nation’s race and class inequalities. As this narrative also shows, however, America’s prisons were also always sites of unfailing and Herculean resistance. And therein lies the future." —Heather Ann Thompson, author of Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy, winner of the Pulitzer Prize

Masking Policy

Masks are encouraged but not required for this event.

Brandon M. Terry
Brandon M. Terry

Brandon M. Terry

Brandon M. Terry is the John L. Loeb Associate Professor of the Social Sciences at Harvard University and the co-director of the Institute on Policing, Incarceration, and Public Safety at the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research. A scholar of African American political thought, Brandon is the editor, with Tommie Shelby, of To Shape a New World: Essays on the Political Philosophy of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the editor of Fifty Years Since MLK. He has published work in Modern Intellectual History, Political Theory, The New York Review of Books, The Los Angeles Review of Books, Boston Review, Dissent, The Point, and New Labor Forum. He is currently at work on two books. The first, which will be released in 2024, is The Tragic Vision of the Civil Rights Movement: Political Theory and the Historical Imagination.The second is tentatively titled Home to Roost: Malcolm X Between Prophecy and Peril

Robin Bernstein
Robin Bernstein

Robin Bernstein

Robin Bernstein is the Dillon Professor of American History and professor of African and African American studies and studies of women, gender, and sexuality at Harvard University. She is the author of Racial Innocence: Performing American Childhood from Slavery to Civil Rights.

Photo Credit: Kristin Reimer

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1256 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, MA 02138

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