“I think there’s a reasonable possibility that she will be a leading scholar in her field, if you want to look 10 to 15 years down the line. I think that would mean that she would have earned a reputation as a very original and thought-provoking scholar who looks at the problem of race in American history and in general,” said John Bodnar, IU Bloomington distinguished and chancellor’s professor of history.
“I envision her having developed her dissertation into a successful book that a lot of people pay attention to. I can see her developing some working relationships with museums and other interpretive sites to try to develop a more inclusive version of U.S. history,” said former IU Bloomington professor Christina Snyder, now the McCabe Greer professor of history at Penn State University.
“My expectation is by the time she finishes her post-doc, she’ll at least have a contract to publish her first book, I think it’s going to make a big splash. I’m a historian of the 19th century—I’m not a specialist in Native American history or in African American history—but from my perspective, what she does is completely recast Reconstruction and what that might mean,” said Wendy Gamber, IU Bloomington Byrnes professor of history.
The praise the aforementioned trio of renowned scholars is dispensing would be remarkable even if they were discussing the work of one of their peers. But to have so much faith in the scholarship of one of their recent doctoral students gives weight to the idea that Alaina Roberts is poised to be a major name in her field.
Roberts, who recently received her Ph.D. from IU Bloomington’s department of history, wrote her dissertation on African Americans in Oklahoma who were enslaved by the Chickasaw Indians, which is certainly unique subject matter on its own. But add in the fact that Roberts’ own family descends from the people she was studying, and it’s easy to see why her research is so intriguing.
“I started doing research on my father’s family as an undergrad at UC Santa Barbara. They’re African American, they are white, and they are also Chickasaw Indian. And they were also not slaves of white people; they were slaves of Chickasaw Indians. I found out that there had not really been much research done on that at all and so, I wanted to tell the story of my ancestors and other people like them,” explained Roberts, who will be embarking on a post-doctoral fellowship at Penn State this fall.
“I think, like a lot of African American families, we had an inkling that we had other ancestry. But it was most interesting to them that it came from them being owned by Native Americans, because there’s this kind of romanticized version of history, in which African Americans and Native Americans come together to work against white people. But for us, it was the opposite. It was Native Americans also being involved in enslavement. So it was kind of disappointing for them, but I was able to show them the nuances of these relationships.”
Again, there’s no denying that her research is fascinating. But what makes her academic work even more impressive is that Roberts earned her doctorate at only 26 years of age, making her the youngest African American woman on record—to the best of IU’s research capabilities—to receive a Ph.D. from IU’s history department.