She was a well-known feminist historian who wrote a groundbreaking book on enslaved women in the antebellum South, and a social-justice activist who dared to take controversial stands. But Stephanie Camp was also known for her love of popular culture and her sense of adventure and for hosting great parties.
The University of Washington history professor died April 2 of cancer at the age of 46.
Professor Camp’s book, “Closer to Freedom: Enslaved Women and Everyday Resistance in the Plantation South,” which is in its second printing, led to a new understanding of how enslaved women resisted their captivity in the 19th century. It was cited not only for the quality of its scholarship but also for the beauty of the writing.
The book “transformed the field of American social history,” said Chandan Reddy, an associate professor of English at the UW.
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Professor Camp was widely admired among historians. In late March, Harvard University President Drew Gilpin Faust, who knew Professor Camp at the University of Pennsylvania, sent an email to be read to her as Professor Camp lay dying.
“Tell her how much I have admired her since she was my TA many years ago,” Faust wrote. “Students heard her courage and saw her integrity and learned from it in ways they never forgot. Her scholarship did the same.”
In her career as a historian, “much of her concern has been trying to find where the history of inequality arose, and how it continues to percolate into the present,” Reddy said.
Professor Camp used oral-history recordings of former slaves, collected by the Works Progress Administration during the Depression, and her own experience as a black woman to plumb how enslaved women might have thought, said Lynn Thomas, chairwoman of the history department at the UW.
She received her bachelor’s and doctorate degrees at the University of Pennsylvania and her master’s at Yale. She received dozens of prizes, fellowships and grants throughout her career.
Professor Camp was part of a cohort of young African-American historians who were asking new and different questions about the black experience in America, Reddy said.
Recently, she had begun to work on a book about race and beauty. “It was a big book, with a big narrative arc,” Thomas said. “She was basically saying it was impossible to think about conceptions of race without thinking of beauty.”
In a prospectus for her book, Professor Camp wrote that her aim was to chronicle “the debates among and between English, white American and, most of all, black American writers about whether or not black was beautiful — and about what the answers to that question meant.”
Professor Camp also taught a course on the history of beauty and race, and “the students just fell in love with her course,” Reddy said. “One student said the class opened her mind, and changed her life.”
She was a creative and effective teacher who was welcoming and gracious to all of her colleagues, and gave lectures at the Monroe State Prison because she believed it was important to share her work with a wider audience, said Jordanna Bailkin, a UW professor of British history.
“She was a great listener — I think a lot of the qualities that made her a wonderful historian also made her a great friend,” she said.
In 2007, she and a graduate student at the UW organized a protest about Woodland Park Zoo’s Maasai Journey program, which featured Maasai cultural elements in a zoo setting. She argued that it referenced a time when African people were grouped together with animals at world fairs.
When she was ridiculed for her stance by a local broadcaster, she just shrugged it off, Thomas said.
Professor Camp had one son, Luc, and was a devoted mother, Bailkin said. She lived in an old house she renovated herself in the Central District, and was especially proud of her flower garden and her parties.
“Her cooking is legendary,” Reddy said. “People would angle for ways to get invited to Stephanie’s house for food.”
She is survived by her son, Luc Ade Mariani, and his father Marc Mariani of Seattle; and her parents, Donald Eugene Camp and Marie Josephe (Dumont) Camp, and sister Dorothea Rae Camp, of Philadelphia.
A public memorial is planned for early June. A memorial fund has been set up for Luc Mariani c/o Chandan Reddy, 2205 E. Terrace St., Seattle 98122. Donations in Professor Camp’s honor may also be made to the nonprofit Friends of the Children, P.O. Box 22801, Seattle 98122, or to the UW’s Stephanie M. Camp Lecture Fund for the History of Race & Gender, c/o the UW Department of History, Box 353560, Seattle, Wa 98195-3560.
Katherine Long: 206-464-2219 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @katherinelong.