West Windsor, N.J. – Five months after she earned a fellowship for her study of Thomas Jefferson, the Quakers, and slavery, Mercer County Community College (MCCC) History Professor Sue Kozel has again been recognized for her contributions to the study of enslaved people: The New Jersey Council for the Humanities (NJCH) has named Kozel a Public Scholar for 2020-2022 in recognition of her work on investigating the 1784 murder of Wench Betty, an enslaved New Jersey woman.
According to Kozel, though the murder and trial proceedings for Wench Betty were held in 1784, there is merit to exploring the case some 200 years after its close.
“The story of Wench Betty was published in 2012 as part of an encyclopedia of enslaved women in America,” Kozel said. “I wanted to understand how none of the people who were present during her murder admitted to hearing anything as she was being killed by her master.”
Kozel’s decision to focus on slavery in New Jersey stems from the topic’s regular dismissal in academic communities.
“Many people do not know that New Jersey had slavery, and that it was as brutal southern slavery,” Kozel said. “There were nearly 12,000 slaves in 1790, all of whom were subject to the same slave codes, violence and denials of freedom.”
The NJCH’s recognition of Kozel’s work then not only honors her passion for unearthing an underrepresented segment of American history, but also seeks to raise its awareness. Kozel’s designation is part of the NJCH’s “Humanities To Go” program, which brings high-quality programming in the social sciences to various organizations.
In addition to her research, Kozel is teaching a variety of courses on the Mercer campus. At the main college, she is leading sections in U.S. History I and II, while through the William Paterson at Mercer Program she instructs a New Jersey history course, as well as a Colloquium for Liberal Studies on Slavery and Freedom from the American Revolution to the Early American Republic (1829).
“This term, I will give a brief presentation for my US I Class on why the life and death of Wench Betty matters,” Kozel said. “When someone is killed, in this case, a murdered slave, she was not able to meet her full potential. I’ll be asking students to read about her and put her story in the context of the values of liberty and freedom in 1784.”
Taken with her work on Jefferson, which she will dive into during 2020 at the Robert H. Smith International Center for Jefferson Studies, Kozel is excited to investigate the overarching narrative of New Jersey’s slave history.
“I’m interested in how individuals become abolitionists and why they identified with enslaved people,” Kozel said. “There are so many moving parts – the Quakers’ idea of universal brotherhood, freed blacks purchasing their relatives – that require more examination.”