Blanche Moses, an obsessive genealogist and descendent of one of the most prominent Jewish families since the American Revolution, firmly believed her maternal ancestors were Sephardic grandees. Yet she found herself at a dead end when it came to her grandmother’s maternal line. In this talk, Professor Leibman overturns the reclusive heiress’s assumptions about her family history to reveal that her grandmother and great-uncle, Sarah and Isaac Brandon, actually began their lives poor, Christian, and enslaved in Barbados. Laura Leibman traces the siblings’ extraordinary journey around the Atlantic world, using artifacts they left behind in Barbados, Suriname, London, Philadelphia, and, finally, New York. While the Brandon’s affluence made them unusual, their story mirrors that of the largely forgotten people of mixed African and Jewish ancestry that constituted as much as ten percent of the Jewish communities in which the siblings lived, and sheds new light on the fluidity of race in the first half of the nineteenth century.
Laura Arnold Leibman is the William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of English and Humanities at Reed College in Portland, Oregon, United States, and the author of The Art of the Jewish Family: A History of Women in Early New York in Five Objects (Bard Graduate Center, 2020) which won three National Jewish Book Awards. Her book, Once We Were Slaves (Oxford University Press, 2021), which was a finalist for the National Jewish Book Awards, is about an early multiracial Jewish family who began their lives enslaved in the Caribbean and became some of the wealthiest Jews in New York.