VanJessica Gladney

VanJessica Gladney is a fourth-year History Ph.D. candidate at the University of Pennsylvania. Her research interests focus on the emancipatory efforts of enslaved women in the mid-19th Century, and "ordinary people's" resistance and rebellion in the Revolutionary/ Early Republic Era.

Alongside her doctoral research, VanJessica has an interest in public history. This interest was first sparked by the Penn & Slavery Project when, after conducting research for the project, she was awarded the Provost Public Historian Fellowship. Currently, she is the Digital Historian for the Penn & Slavery Project. VanJessica was also the lead historian for two digital humanities projects. She conducted archival research for the Story Map in the William Still 200 Project, and gathered historical evidence for the Mask We Wear Project by Digital Freedom Dreams. She is affiliated with the Critical Museum Studies in the Center for Experimental Ethnography. She is also an affiliated student for the Penn Program on Race, Science, & Society

VanJessica is a recipient of the Presidential PhD Fellowship, Co-President of the William Fontaine Fellowship SocietyChief Editor of the Penn & Slavery Project Editorial Board, and an amateur chandler.

Committee: Dr. Mia Bay, Dr. Kathleen M. Brown, Dr. Sarah L. H. Gronningsater

Online Office Hours

Schedule office hours through VanJessica's Calendly page. If you need to meet outside of the times available, please reach out via email.


B.A., English, University of Pennslyvania, 2018

Research Interests

The Penn & Slavery Project

VanJessica has had a longstanding relationship with the Penn & Slavery Project. As one of the original undergraduate researchers, she investigated Penn's connection to slavery by identifying slave owning trustees and faculty, the possibility that enslaved people built Penn's original campus, and the buildings and statues that honor slave owners on its current campus. Because of research, the University of Pennsylvania removed a statue of George Whitefield from its campus. She currently, serves as the project's Digital Historian. In this role she helped develop the PSP Augmented Reality mobile application, and continues to manage the project's website. Both the app and website serve as platforms to feature undergraduate work. She began building the website as the recipient of the Provost's Public History Fellowship (2018-19). During her fellowship she also presented information about throughout the greater Philadelphia area. Her research was recently featured in the Philadelphia Inquirer as part of the "A More Perfect Union" series.


Domestic Workers & Street Car Segregation

In her first year as a graduate student VanJessica researched the connections between street car segregation legislation and African American women serving as domestic workers in white homes in late-nineteenth-century Georgia. Although she does not plan to study streetcars in the future, that project, drew her attention to how the spaces Black women occupy award or deny them access to agency, freedom, and personhood.


Enslaved women and self-emancipation

Her second-year research paper focused on two specific enslaved women. She conducted research about Jane Johnson's life, who freed herself and her two sons from their owner, and Hannah Crafts, who escaped the same enslaver a few years later. VanJessica is reworking the paper to emphasize the methodology she employed while piecing together archival fragments. In the paper, as it stands VanJessica expanded on Jane's enslavement and her life before she arrived in Philadelphia. She also focused on the meaning of Jane Johnson's presence and testimony in the courtroom. It strengthened her claims to freedom and gave her access to personhood. It also illustrated the important role Philadelphia played in pushing the nation towards Civil War. 


William Still in Philadelphia

VanJessica's next project shifted her focus to the famed Philadelphian abolitionist William Still who counted Jane Johnson as one of the hundreds of enslaved people he guided to freedom. She served as the historian for the William Still 200 project celebrating the 200th year anniversary of his birth. VanJessica helped create a city-wide tour that followed William Still's journey through nineteenth-century Philadelphia by identifying locations that played a significant role in his development as an author, activist, and abolitionist.

This project and her work with the Penn & Slavery Project shaped her thinking about the intellectual development taking place in 19th-Century Philadelphia. In the fall of 2021, she presented her paper identifying connections between William Still, who was forming his abolitionist thought and helping enslaved people escape, and Penn's medical school professionals, who were producing knowledge in support of the institution of slavery, at the same time, only a few blocks away. 



Right now, VanJessica is in the early stages of dissertation research, working with a team to formalize the Penn & Slavery Project campus tours, and making candles on the weekends. 

Courses Taught

Teaching Assistant

- History of American Law to 1877

- Hamilton's America: US History 1776-1804

- Deciphering America: Iconic Images from the Colonial to the Current Era

- Transformations of Urban America: Making the Unequal Metropolis

- Africa Since 1800

Selected Publications

The Penn & Slavery Project

Center for Experimental Ethnography

Digital Freedom Dreams

Penn Program on Race, Science, & Society



CV (file)