VanJessica Gladney

VanJessica Gladney is a third-year graduate student pursuing a Ph.D. in History at the University of Pennsylvania. Her work focuses on examining the ways enslaved women navigated through legal spaces to find avenues to freedom. In 2021, she became a recipient of the inaugural class of Presidential PhD Fellows. Her student leadership roles includes her positions as as Co-President of the William Fontaine Fellowship Society and Chief Editor of the Penn & Slavery Project Editorial Board. Outside of her personal research, VanJessica serves as the Digital Historian for the Penn & Slavery Projectand conducts archival research for the Story Map as part of the William Still 200 Project, the Mask We Wear Project within Digital Freedom Dreams, and the Graduate Student Critical Museum Studies Working Group with the Center for Experimental Ethnography.  

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

VanJessica Gladney is in the early stages of working on her dissertation, and finds questions about the relationship between African American women and the law the most generative as she conducts research. She is specifically focusing on how enslaved women navigated legal spaces to find avenues to freedom.

VanJessica's most recent project focused on famed Philadelphian abolitionist William Still and served as a historian fro the William Still 200 project. VanJessica helped create a city-wide tour that followed William Still's journey through nineteenth century Philadelphia by identifying locations crucial to his development as an author, activist, and abolitionist.

She became interested in William Still after finishing a research paper that told a narrative about Jane Johnson's life, and the way William Still helped Jane and her sons escape their enslaver. VanJessica plans on 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 ways Jane Johnson's presence and testimony in the courtroom strengthened her claims to freedom and gave her access to personhood.

In her first year as a graduate student VanJessica researched the connections between streetcar 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 paper, and eventually her Jane Johnson project raised questions about the overlaps of social and legal history. 

VanJessica Gladney's research began with public history. 

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 student 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.

After her fellowship ended, she began her first year of graduate school, VanJessica combined her interest in Public History with Transnational History, by studying various museums (which she frames as 'public archives') and their methods of presenting the history of slavery to the general public. This project, and the Penn & Slavery Project's interrogation of the Penn Museum, earned her a place on the Graduate Student Museum Working Group at the Center for Experimental Ethnography. 

Courses Taught

Teaching Assistant

- Africa Since 1800

- Deciphering America

Selected Publications

Center for Experimental Ethnogorphy

Digital Freedom Dreams

McNeil Center for Early American Studies

The Penn & Slavery Project

CV (file)