Three Questions with Ashley Williams

Three Questions is an initiative to share the value that our faculty, students, and external patrons derive from using the Portal to Texas History at UNT Libraries.

1. How important is the Portal in your teaching, learning or research?

The Portal has become essential to my research on Black experiences of enslavement in Texas. My research has expanded greatly from this rich archive of maps, newspapers, photographs, and 19th century publications. The newspapers have been especially amazing. I was able to save dozens of hours by doing keyword searches in digitized issues, rather than scanning archival copies by eye. The ability to read through such a breadth of local news and op-eds immersed me in the happenings of Guadalupe County. Because these newspapers were written by and for white audiences (often with investment in slavery), such broad reading also taught me how to read between the lines to glean information about enslaved life and patterns of self-emancipation specific to Central Texas. The collection of maps has also been particularly helpful for tracing land ownership of enslavers over timeā€”and thus, for getting a better understanding of the locations and conditions that the enslaved potters I focus on were inhabiting.

2. How has the Portal changed the way you approach your research, teaching or learning?

The Portal is now the first place I go when I have a new research query around Texas history. I can certainly see using the Portal in future classroom assignments to help students engage directly with primary sources.

3. What do you want others to know about your research, teaching or learning?

My dissertation provides the first comparative analysis of unfree artistic labor in the U.S. I examine objects from the shifting borders of U.S. empire, including stoneware vessels made by enslaved potters in Texas, ledger drawings made by Kiowa and Cheyenne prisoners of war from Indian Territory, and wicker chairs made by incarcerated weavers in the Philippines. The Portal has been integral to work on my first chapter, which explores the story of enslaved potters Hiram, James, and Wallace Wilson in Guadalupe County. After Emancipation, the potters founded their own successful H. Wilson & Company pottery: the first Black-owned business in Texas. Today, in large part due to the advocacy of descendants, the story of these potters is known, and their vessels are widely collected and celebrated.

Ashley Williams is a PhD candidate at Columbia University who specializes in the art and material culture of the United States. She has assisted with projects at the Wallach Art Gallery, the Bard Graduate Center Gallery, Historic Deerfield, the Newport Restoration Foundation, and the Blanton Museum of Art. From 2018 to 2019, Ashley was the John Wilmerding Intern in American Art at the National Gallery of Art. She holds a BA from Agnes Scott College and an MA from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. She is the 2023-2024 William H. Truettner Fellow at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.