VanJessica Gladney

VanJessica Gladney is a third-year graduate student pursuing a Ph.D. in History at the University of Pennsylvania. Her research interests focus public history, and the emancipatory efforts of enslaved women in the late 18th to mid 19th Century.

Alongside her doctoral research, VanJessica works as the Digital Historian for the Penn & Slavery Project. She serves as the lead historian for two digital humanities projects; she conducted archival research for the Story Map in the (now complete) William Still 200 Project, and gathering 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. The research she conducted as an undergraduate is posted on the Penn & Slavery Project Website, and led to the removal of a statue on Penn's 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.


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 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 few blocks away. 



Right now, VanJessica is preparing for her comprehensive exams, serving as a teaching assistant,  continuing her work as a public historian, and uses her study breaks to make candles.

Courses Taught

Teaching Assistant

- Africa Since 1800

- Deciphering America



- Transformations of Urban America

- History of American Law to 1877

Selected Publications

Center for Experimental Ethnography

Digital Freedom Dreams

Penn Program on Race, Science, & Society

The Penn & Slavery Project


CV (file)