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Jesse Joseph Olsavsky

Assistant Professor of History at Duke Kunshan University
DKU Faculty


I am a historian who focuses largely on the history of slavery, abolitionism, and their legacies. I teach courses on American history, American political institutions and Pan-African thought. I am coordinator of the US Studies major. I am also co-director of the Freedom Lab, an interdisciplinary faculty-student research center devoted to the study of un-freedom and liberation in the modern world.

My First book is titled The Most Absolute Abolition': Runaways, Vigilance Committees, and the Rise of Revolutionary Abolitionism, 1835-1861 (LSU Press 2022). This book examines how interracial, urban abolitionist organizations called vigilance committees defended African Americans from police and slave catchers, helped thousands of slaves escape slavery, by land and sea, and crafted utopian ideas--from feminism to prison abolition--in the process transforming abolitionism into a movement with revolutionary dimensions.

I have published essays on the contributions of enslaved and free women activists to abolitionism and feminism, on underground activism in the life of Frederick Douglass, on runaway slaves, on the antislavery roots of prison/police abolition, and on the influence of abolitionist political theory in the Pan-African, anti-imperialist thought of W.E.B. Dubois. 

I am currently working on my second book, tentatively titled "In The Tradition: The Abolitionist Tradition and Human Emancipation." Throughout the twentieth century, numerous emancipatory movements in numerous parts of the world—from Pan-Africanism to Black Power, from Socialism to Anarchism to various anti-colonial movements—studied, wrote about, and re-invoked the nineteenth-century abolitionist movement during their own struggles for self-determination. "In the Tradition," seeks to trace a long history of activists consciously seeing themselves as heirs to radical abolitionism, or as part of what anti-colonial activist Paul Robeson called “the abolitionist tradition.”

Current Appointments & Affiliations

Assistant Professor of History at Duke Kunshan University · 2019 - Present DKU Faculty, Duke Kunshan University

Education, Training & Certifications

University of Pittsburgh · 2019 Ph.D.

Web Links

Book Webpage