Betty Wood obituary

Other lives: Historian of slavery, gender and religion in America

My friend and mentor Betty Wood, who has died of cancer aged 76, was a Cambridge academic and a historian of the study of slavery, gender, and religion in the Atlantic world. She was among the first to study enslaved people, and specifically enslaved women, at an elite UK university and was instrumental in building the profile of early American history in the UK.

Born in Melton Constable, Norfolk, the daughter of Marjorie (nee Green) and Stanley Wood, a railway guard, she was educated at grammar schools in Fakenham and Scunthorpe and became the first in her family to attend university, studying geography at Keele. Graduating in 1967, the following year she took a master’s in social and economic history at the London School of Economics.

Betty then undertook doctoral research at the University of Pennsylvania. Philadelphia, where she lived for three years, had seen race riots in the mid-1960s, and there her interest was sparked in American history and the origins of its racial complexion.

Securing a fellowship at Girton College, Cambridge, in 1971, she completed her PhD in 1973 and became one of the first women appointed to the Cambridge history faculty. She built a career around a steady flow of groundbreaking publications and an abiding duty of care for her students.

Betty’s research was ahead of its time. It reflected her interest in people, power, and behaviour – as she painstakingly mapped out the contours of 18th-century slavery and gender relations among the inhabitants of colonial America and the Caribbean. Her book Slavery in Colonial Georgia, 1730-1775 (1984) charted the origins of racial slavery in a state at the heart of the civil rights movement.

Eight further books explored enslaved people’s informal economies and their labour patterns in early America. Her work addressed white privilege, black lives, gender identity, class solidarity, and spiritual community. Her best-known book, Come Shouting to Zion (1998), co-written with Sylvia Frey, is a rich survey of the rise of black protestantism in the American south and West Indies.

I met Betty in 1997 and the next year she became the supervisor for my own PhD. She was a wonderful model of how to teach and learn with passion, humility and generosity in an academic world that can often lean towards privilege and competition. Always supportive of early-career researchers and other female academics, in 1999 she was appointed a reader at Cambridge.

Betty also made a huge impact on academic networks in Europe and North America. She was awarded an honorary membership of the American Historical Association in 2018.

In 2013 she retired from teaching and devoted more time to her love of wildlife and to history documentaries, sports, and gardening. She was also an avid Scunthorpe United fan and sports aficionado.

Betty is survived by her brother, Philip, her nephew, Timothy, niece, Tamzin, and by two great-nephews and two great-nieces.

Ben Marsh

The GuardianTramp

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