Walter Hawthorne

Position: Professor of African and Digital History, Director of, editor of Journal of Slavery and Data Preservation

Field: African, African Diaspora & Digital History
Office: Berkey Hall, Room 202


I am a professor of African and Digital History, director of, and an editor of the Journal of Slavery and Data Preservation. My research focuses on the history of Atlantic slavery and the Atlantic trade in enslaved people of African descent. In addition, I have written on African agricultural practices, religious beliefs, and family structures in the Old and New Worlds. My first book, Planting Rice and Harvesting Slaves: Transformations along the Guinea-Bissau Coast, 1400-1900, explores the impact of interactions with Atlantic merchants on small-scale, decentralized societies in West Africa. I derive most of the evidence from oral histories that I collected among Balanta people in Guinea Bissau in the 1990s. My most recent book, From Africa to Brazil: Culture, Identity, and an Atlantic Slave Trade, 1600-1830, examines the slave trade from Africa to Amazonia, Brazil. The book is based on years of archival and oral history research in Guinea-Bissau, Cape Verde, Portugal, and Rio de Janeiro and Maranhão, Brazil. I have published in a range of scholarly journals such as Journal of African History, Luso-Brazilian Review, Slavery and Abolition, Africa, Journal of Global History, American Historical Review, and Journal of Slavery and Data Preservation. 

Over two decades at Michigan State University, I have partnered with Matrix, MSU’s digital humanities center, for a number of grant-sponsored digital projects., our most recent and on-going endeavor, accounts for the lives of named enslaved individuals of African descent in the Atlantic world, revealing their stories to scholars, educators, and genealogists.  The project benefits from generous funding from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities and has required me to broaden my research focus to encompass the entire Atlantic World and especially mainland North America. Other projects that I have undertaken with Matrix include an archival digitization project in The Gambia, which was funded by the British Library; Islam and Modernity, which was funded by the NEH; and Slave Biographies: The Atlantic Database Network, which was funded by the NEH. 

In addition to research and teaching, I have held a range of administrative positions at MSU. Among those, I served as graduate director in the Department of history for a year, chair of the Department of History for eight years, and Associate Dean for Academic and Student Affairs in the College of Social Science for four years. 

I received my Ph.D. in African History from Stanford University in 1998. I completed an M.A. in American History at University of Maryland in 1992 and a B.A. in History at Hampden-Sydney College in 1988.

I advise graduate students in the fields of African, Atlantic and digital history. MSU’s doctoral program in African history has long been one of the premier programs in the world and is ranked in the top three in US News & World Report. I also teach undergraduate lecture classes and seminars and welcome motivated undergraduates onto our team at