Sarah Silkey teaches courses examining the intellectual, social, and cultural history of modern America, as well as African American history and the history of Africa. Throughout her research and teaching, she seeks to broaden understanding of American history by examining the evolution of ideas about race, gender, violence, and citizenship.
Silkey came to appreciate the advantages of a liberal arts education while first growing up around and then attending a small liberal arts college in Minnesota. As an undergraduate American Studies major, she became interested in understanding the role of race and racial tensions in the development of American society. Conducting graduate work in Britain allowed her to investigate American history through a transnational lens. Rather than existing in isolation, American society has been deeply influenced by social, political, and cultural connections with other nations, and Silkey continues to use this transnational focus in her teaching and research.
Silkey’s research explores the history of racial violence in American society. Her first book, “Black Woman Reformer: Ida B. Wells, Lynching, and Transatlantic Activism,” reveals how Ida B. Wells, an African American journalist and civil rights activist, exploited contradictions between British and American understandings of mob violence during her 1893-1894 transatlantic anti-lynching campaign. Wells’s successful critique of American lynching as racist oppression continues to shape our understanding of mob violence today. Silkey has also published essays on responses to Wells's campaign in Great Britain and the American South, as well as the evolution of scholarly interpretations of lynching.
Most recently, Silkey’s work has focused on a project supported by a $136,000 grant from the American Council of Learned Societies. The project, “Wild Adolescence: The Pickens Family, the Ku Klux Klan, and Racial Terrorism in the Alabama Black Belt,” incorporates undergraduate student researchers to analyze a rare Reconstruction-era collection of correspondence from a family with ties to the Ku Klux Klan.