This year, the History and Social Science Department hosted Dr. Ilyon Woo P’25 for the Henry R. Heyburn ’39 Lecture in History. The department tried a new model for the lecture; Dr. Woo spoke to American history students in an assembly November 9 and then visited individual classes to dive further into the content of her work as part of an in-house field trip. During the assembly, she shared her journey as a historical researcher and storyteller, from her early struggles to her New York Times best-selling book, Master Slave Husband Wife. On November 28, the Times named Master Slave Husband Wife one of its 10 Best Books of 2023.
As a high school student, Dr. Woo found formulating a historical argument overwhelming. She was paralyzed by the complexities of history and distilling an entire era into a single worksheet. Her early setbacks proved to be her secret strength. While attending Columbia University, she discovered a narrative by Ellen and William Craft. In December 1848, Ellen posed as a white male, William posed as her slave, and the two fled Macon, Georgia, to begin their journey to freedom. The story left Dr. Woo wondering about the couple’s life before their daring escape, and she knew she had to explore further.
Her first draft of Master Slave Husband Wife was described by one editor as “a scholarly tomb.” She invested so much time in primary and secondary source materials, visiting the places the Crafts visited, and understanding the greater context of America in 1848. While her work was thorough, it appeared that she still had trouble distilling the story. It was then she had an epiphany from her childhood while learning to play the piano. Her mother advised her to tap out the rhythms with each hand to find the moments of convergence, rather than focusing on the notes. This approach ensured the Crafts’ experience and the context of the era complemented each other to tell a full and compelling story.
Dr. Woo finished her lecture by asking students, “What is your Achilles heel, your flaw? Flip that negative tendency and look at it another way. The qualities you struggle with may be your secret strength.” While she performed poorly on her high school history assignments, she used her strengths of curiosity, thorough research, and well-crafted writing to become an accomplished author as an adult.
Dr. Woo holds a B.A. in the humanities from Yale College and a Ph.D. in English from Columbia University. Her writing has appeared in The Boston Globe, The Wall Street Journal, TIME magazine, and The New York Times. She has received support for her research from the Whiting Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the American Antiquarian Society, among other institutions.
The Henry R. Heyburn ’39 Lecture in History Fund was established in 1991 to support an annual lecture in history and to commemorate Mr. Heyburn’s love of history and geography, as well as his many years of association with Milton as a student, parent, and trustee. Thank you to the Heyburn family; Dr. Woo, for giving her time and expertise; and the donors who make enriching programs like this possible for our students.