Carnegie Mellon University

Edda Fields-Black

Edda L. Fields-Black

Associate Professor

  • Baker Hall 231 B


Dr. Fields-Black is a specialist in the trans-national history of West African rice farmers, peasant farmers in pre-colonial Upper Guinea Coast and enslaved laborers on rice plantations in the South Carolina and Georgia Lowcountry during the antebellum period.

Fields-Black’s new book, COMBEE: Harriet Tubman, the Combahee River Raid, and Black Freedom during the Civil War (Oxford University Press, trade list, February 2024) offers the fullest account to date of Tubman’s Civil War service. This narrative history tells the untold story of the Combahee River Raid from the perspective of Tubman and the enslaved people she helped to free based on new sources not previously used by historians, as well as new interpretations of sources familiar to Tubman’s biographers. It is the story of Harriet Tubman’s Civil War service during which she worked as a cook and nurse in Beaufort, SC, and gathered intelligence among freed people and enslaved Blacks. It is the story of enslaved people who labored against their wills on seven rice plantations, ran for their lives, boarded the US gunboats, and sailed to freedom.

               A deep reading of 160+ US Civil War Pension Files primarily from the two regiments of the 2nd South Carolina Volunteers (SSCV)/US Colored Troops (USCT) formed after the Raid, reveals the identities of the spies, scouts, and pilots recruited/led by Tubman and hundreds of men, women, and children freed in the Combahee River Raid. Years after the Civil War had ended, the veterans, their widows, children, and neighbors testified about their lives and relatives on Combahee River rice plantations: who were their parents, siblings, spouses, children, cousins tracing back four generations, and childhood friends; where were they born; who held them in bondage; where were they on June 2nd 1863; what happened during the Raid when Colonel James Montgomery and the “Yankee gunboats” came up the river and “took all of the colored people off” to freedom; and, what became of them, both during and after the war. This is the first time we know what happened during the Combahee River Raid and hear the freedom-seekers tell their story in their own voices. 

Fields-Black’s first monograph Deep Roots: Rice Farmers in West Africa and the African Diaspora (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2014 paperback, 2008 cloth) uses a unique blend of interdisciplinary sources and methods to chronicle the development of tidal rice-growing technology by the inhabitants of the West African Rice Coast region, the region where the majority of captives disembarking in South Carolina and Georgia originated.  By integrating linguistic evidence, biological and botanical studies of mangrove ecosystems, oral traditions, and travelers’ accounts from the first European traders to visit the coastal region, Deep Roots reconstructs a historical period pre-dating the first written sources for the region and beginning more than a millennium before the trans-Atlantic slave trade when both West African rice and rice farmers became important commodities.  This important study is the first to apply the comparative method of historical linguistics to the Atlantic languages of West Africa’s coast.  The narrative reveals the development of highly specialized and intensely localized agricultural technology and identities indigenous to West Africa’s coastal littoral.  It presents a rare picture of dynamic early coastal West African societies, challenging Africanists’ assumptions that rice-growing technology diffused from the interior to the coast.  A picture of a dynamic, diverse, highly specialized and localized pre-colonial Africa also stands in sharp contrast to Americanists’ constructions of a static, undifferentiated pre-modern Africa which acted as the progenitor of cultures in the African Diaspora.  Deep Roots builds on the underlying premise of the comparative method of historical linguistics—inheritance, innovation, and borrowing—to fashion a theory of cultural change which is sufficiently open and elastic to encompass the diversity of communities, cultures, and forms of expression in Africa and the African Diaspora.

               Fields-Black is also co-author of Rice: Global Networks and New Histories (Chinese edition 2023; Cambridge University Press 2017, 2015) with Francesca Bray, Peter Coclanis, and Dagmar Schafer), which was awarded the Choice Outstanding Academic Title for 2015She served as co-organizer of “New Histories of Rice Conference” sponsored by the Max Planck Institute for History of Science, Berlin, Germany in March 2011.

Her research has been funded by the Ford, Mellon, Woodrow Wilson, and Annenberg Foundations as well as by the Smithsonian Museum and Fulbright-Hays.  Professor Fields-Black’s has received funding from the Henry Luce Foundation Project: The Greening of Early Undergraduate Education at Carnegie Mellon and the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation: Institute for the Study of Entrepreneurship, Innovation and Technology, the Berkman, Faulk, and ProSEED Funds.  Professor Fields-Black serves as the Faculty Advisor for Carnegie Mellon’s African and African American Studies Minor.

Dr. Fields-Black is executive producer and librettist of “Unburied, Unmourned, Unmarked: Requiem for Rice,” a contemporary classical and multimedia symphonic work and the first symphonic work about slavery on rice plantations “Unburied, Unmourned, Unmarked: Requiem for Rice” memorializes the sufferings and sacrifices of Africans enslaved on Lowcountry South Carolina and Georgia Rice plantations and celebrates the critical role their ingenuity, technology, and industry played in the economy of the US South. She wrote the libretto, the text from which the project is based from primary sources. Three-time EMMY™ Award winning composer John Wineglass, composed the original score for orchestra, choir, and soloists. Internationally renowned filmmaker/director, Julie Dash whose “Daughters of the Dust” was the first film by an African-American woman to have a major studio release and win the Excellence in Cinematography Award and be nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at the 1991 Sundance Film Festival is directing film installations, which cinematographer, David Claessen, will shoot (they will be shown in performance) and a documentary about the making this historic piece. 

The symphonic work first places the listener below decks of a slave ship making the atrocious journey from West Africa to America. The strings and woodwinds’ rapid scalar runs, ascending into the upper register just to immediately fall again, paired with unstable harmonies in the brass, the foreboding thud of the bass drum, and the intermittent clash of the chimes, produce a chaotic effect, making one feel the turbulence of the waves, wind, and seasickness. Just as the mass of sound becomes truly overwhelming, the brass seamlessly transition into a fanfare transposed upward and repeated while the strings’ runs are melodic, but urgent. With a change in harmonic structure, the mood is suddenly triumphant, carrying the enormity of the conditions the slaves survived but brimming over with pride at the work of their hands. The narration begins as the chilling libretto tells the lived experiences of the enslaved, all the more haunting with the orchestra and recorded sounds of the rice fields conjuring the setting. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette critic Jeremy Reynolds wrote, after attending the February 2019 performance of “Unburied, Unmourned, Unmarked: Requiem for Rice:” “The performance was a small taste of what promises to be a grand dramatic homage to the darkest chapter of American history.”

The first three movements premiered at Carnegie Music Hall in Pittsburgh on February 13, 2019, presented by the Colour of Music Symphony (COMF) and have subsequently been performed by COMF in Nashville, TN (November 2019), Columbia, SC (September 2021), and Sacramento, CA (November 2021); the San Bernardino Symphony in San Bernardino, CA (January 2020); the Santa Cruz Symphony (January 2022); and, the New York Philharmonic and Interlochen Academy in New York (at Lincoln Center in March 2023). The original score was commissioned by the Heinz Endowments, Pittsburgh Foundation, Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council, and Opportunity Fund. The Orchestral Debut was funded by the Alfred. P. Sloan Foundation.

Dr. Fields-Black is principal investigator of a team of scientists: Dr. Andrew Agha of University of South Carolina Department of Anthropology, Dr. Rob Baldwin, Margaret H. Lloyd-SmartState Sustainability Chair, Professor, Clemson University, Department of the Forestry and Environmental Conservation; Dr. Travis Folk, Biologist, Folk Land Management, Inc.; Dr. Daniel Hanks, Aquatic Ecologist, The Weyerhaeuser Company; Dr. Dan Richter, Professor of Soils and Forest Ecology, Duke University, Nicholas School of the Environment; Dr. Ernest Wiggers, Biologist, Folk Land Management, Inc.; Dr. Andrew Bridges, President/CEO, Nemours Wildlife Foundation. The team of historian and scientists is engaged in a project, “‘Queen Rice’: How Enslaved Labor Transformed Wetland Landscapes and America,” an interdisciplinary 300-year study of the impact of enslaved labor on the coastal wetlands, the impact of the Lowcountry environment on enslaved communities, and best practices for conservation of Lowcountry’s rice fields in the face of climate change and sea level rise using archaeology, conservation, digital humanities, historical sources and analysis, pollen studies, soil science, and wildlife ecology.

Dr. Fields-Black was the consultant for “The Power of Place: The Rice Fields of the Lowcountry” permanent exhibition at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, an advisor for the “From Slavery to Freedom” permanent exhibition for the Senator John Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh, PA, a consultant and member of the program committee for the International African American Museum (IAAM) in Charleston, SC (curating the Africa gallery permanent exhibit in the concept stage and advising the West African Roots, Carolina Gold, and Gullah Geechee permanent galleries during production). Currently, Fields-Black serves as an advisor for the Lowcountry Project (Gullah Geechee temporary exhibit scheduled for 2024-2025) at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. creator/co-curator of “Picturing Freedom: Harriet Tubman and the Combahee River Raid,” an art exhibit based on her new book on Harriet Tubman and the Combahee River Raid, which will open at the Gibbes Museum (in Charleston, SC) in May 2024 and travel nationally/ internationally thereafter. 


Ph.D.: University of Pennsylvania, 2001

Courses Taught

  • Introduction to African History I: Earliest Times to the Origins of the Slave Trades
  • Introduction to African History II: 18th Century to the end of Apartheid
  • Global Histories: Creolization in the African Diaspora
  • Entrepreneurs in Africa, Past, Present and Future
  • Pre-Colonial West African History: 1100 to 1800
  • From the Local to the Global: Globalization in East African History

Department Member Since: 2001